UCAN Spirituality Catholic Church News

The Woman at the Well

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Greg Homeming OCD

Each of us will have “transfiguring” experiences which, unlike the disciples’ dramatic experience on the mountain, tend to follow a more gradual path fitting our personality and disposition. God is considerate of our obstinacy and slowness to respond. In the three Sundays leading up to Palm Sunday, St John guides us through a series of encounters to a point where we are able to SEE Jesus. These gospels also give us Jesus’ perspective and an insight into the humanity of Jesus and Jesus the man.

Today’s gospel is often called the “woman at the well” or “the Samaritan woman”; I prefer to call it “the woman with a past”. It begins with two people silently doing their thing by Jacob’s well until Jesus breaks the silence by asking the woman for a drink. A dialogue much like gentle banter ensues, but it is not long before we realise what Jesus really wants. He thirsts for her love and seeks her salvation, just as he thirsts for my love and for your love and for our salvation. The first step in the spiritual life is not my own; the initiative is Jesus’ and I seek him in response to his love for me.

Like the dialogue with Nicodemus in the preceding chapter of St Matthew’s gospel, our conversation immediately moves into a two-level dialogue with an ordinary human meaning which the woman hears and a spiritual meaning which Jesus intends. Having asked the woman for water which sustains life, Jesus offers her the water of eternal life. She does not recognise this and playfully engages him, thinking she might acquire a special kind of water which completely slackens thirst. He then pricks her conscience by asking her to “call her husband”, and the conversation changes.

Like many of us, she has a past, and Jesus taps into this so as to lead her to a deeper level of reflection. We often wonder what the point of our wasted past and frequent misdemeanours is. With a gentle but firm prod, God can use our past to move us to the threshold of encounter. A word from a friend, a disappointment, a death, a tragedy, nostalgic thoughts, a book, a homily, or simply a moment of inner dissonance can be all that God needs to move our mind and heart to seek Him.

Confronted with the truth, the woman opens her eyes and says “I see you are a prophet”, and in a remarkable turn begins to question Jesus on worship; she starts to talk about God. Jesus responds by raising the bar, and speaks in a way which is obviously tests her, but which throws out a threefold challenge: where do you worship? Do you know what you worship?; and, what is salvation?

How would you answer those questions? Do you have firm positions on religious matters? Often our stance can be so strong that rather than living in the presence of God we live in our thoughts. Alarmingly, this can obstruct love. These questions strike at our doctrinaire certainties and open the soul to the God who is worshiped within the believer in spirit and truth. What we believe is of paramount importance but it must be carried correctly. Salvation does not come from what we believe but from the One that we believe in; specifically, we have salvation through relationship with Jesus who is the Son of God.

The woman does not know how to reply and places her hope in the Christ who is to come. Jesus has led her to himself and now says “I who am speaking to you, I am he”. With this the disciples return and the encounter is brought to a sudden conclusion. We do not know much of the rest of her story. We do know that she wonders if Jesus is the Christ and through her words other Samaritans came to believe in Jesus. The Lord is invited to the town and stays there for two days, enough time for many to come to know “that he really is the saviour of the world”.