In this week’s edition of Celebration Deacon Doug Myler notes that for Jesus and the woman, “Their thirst brought them together. They both need water.” Jesus’ thirst is physical, the woman’s thirst is spiritual. He reminds us of the social rules that prevented conversation between men and women who were not related as well as the hatred between Samaritans and Jews. “But yet, (in spite of those taboos) the two sit, talk and listen to one another. (Remember on the mountain of the Transfiguration when God said, “listen to him”?) Through their mutual acceptance of the other, the walls, hostilities and hatreds, which had long separated Samaritans and Jews disappear.” First the woman comes to believe Jesus is a prophet, after he reveals more of his identity she makes the pivotal statement, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ; when he comes, he will tell us everything.” Jesus replies, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” The woman hurries away with great excitement, to tell the others in the town. “Could he possibly be the Christ?” she wonders. After listening to the woman, and then listening to Jesus, the townspeople also come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
In the same edition of Celebration Sister Mary M. McGlone notes that the interesting thing about this story in the context of Lent is that it is a conversion story that doesn’t focus at all on sinfulness or even traditional repentance but rather on being known and accepted. The woman said to Jesus she had no husband, but Jesus replied that she had known at least five. We usually draw implications rom this story, but we do not know if there was anything sinful about her situation, and there is no follow-up on the topic. There is no conversation about straightening out her life, no discussion about laws concerning divorce and remarriage, nothing about whether or not her current situation is sinful or not.
She told the people in her community, “He told me everything I have done.” We get the sense that Jesus helped her to understand who she was. Her discussion about where to worship, about prophets and the coming Messiah showed that she was unexpectedly well versed in religious tradition and had real theological questions and religious hopes. But the message she took home to her neighbors did not refer to any of that. She had been accepted for who she was, just as she was. That fulfilled a need that nothing physical or intellectual could ever satisfy.
This story is about thirsting for a relationship with God, and about God seeking and finding God’s beloved children. We don’t know the woman’s social status, whether she was the town reject or a popular figure, yet she became an apostle, an evangelizer. In Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) Pope Francis writes, ‘Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that she or he has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus.’ That is exactly what happened to the Samaritan woman. Differences in theology, liturgical correctness and the question of who has the better tradition are just distractions in the face of an encounter with Christ. Her interaction with Jesus filled her with the living water (the Spirit) and that made her an apostle, one who was then able to bring others into a similar encounter with him.
The turning point in the story comes after their complex and sophisticated theological discussion, when the woman had gone from animosity to curiosity, to genuine questioning. Then she explained her belief, “When the Messiah comes, he will tell us everything.” Jesus simply replied, “I am he, the one speaking to you.” Then the disciples arrived on the scene, but they did not question her presence with Jesus, which gave her the opportunity to return to town to tell her people what she had experienced. When she spoke with them, she didn’t talk about temples or wells of water or even the Spirit and God’s truth. She said, “He told me everything I have done.” Just like the first disciples who went to tell their friends about Jesus in the beginning of the Gospel of John, what she told her people inspired enough faith to get them to go see for themselves.
In this year of our commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Sister Mary also comments on our reading from Romans: “Justification by faith is the major theme of the first four chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Romans and is at the heart of Lutheran theology…One way to understand justification is through considering its effects. Paul tells us that justification gives us peace with God, access to grace and a sure hope because the love of God has been poured into our hearts. Justification, it turns out, was exactly what the Samaritan woman experienced in her encounter with Jesus. His grace, symbolized by living water, was poured into her heart and flowed over into apostleship.
Paul says the same of the patriarch Abraham…Abraham’s faith in God’s promise made him righteous, putting him in right relationship with God. It also made him fearless. From there, nothing was impossible – a lesson Abraham’s descendants forgot as they wandered from Egypt to the promised land.” Sister Mary reminds us that justification by faith begins with and depends completely on our being receptive to God and being willing to depend on God. Inspired by the prophet Micah, she offers this insight, “This is what God requires, only this, that you be open to God’s great love.” Accepting God’s offer of love is what justifies us. It is also what will inspire and empower us to always show mercy in our relationships with others as well as to ourselves. She insists, “With nothing to prove we will have nothing to fear.”
When she went to share her encounter with Jesus with her neighbors, the woman left the water jar by the well. Perhaps she knew she could retrieve it later, after sharing her exciting news. Or perhaps the author of the gospel intended the jar to be a metaphor for her life. Deacon Doug wonders, “As she came to know more fully the person of Jesus, by talking with him and listening to him, was her life changed? Had she come to believe that by drinking of the water he gives, that she would never thirst again? Leaving water jars behind can be risky. (It appears that) she was willing to take the risk. (During this season of Lent) maybe we should ask ourselves: What is our water jar? Would we be willing to take the risk and leave it behind?” Amen.