HOMILY 3rd SUNDAY OF LENT YEAR A 2023 ESSENDON
LIVING WATER TO FAITH IN JESUS – SAMARITAN WOMAN AT THE WELL
Jn 4.4-42 Ex 17.3-7 Rom 5.1-2,5-8
We’ve just had International Women’s Day this past week, on 8th March, so this is a most appropriate Gospel to fit that theme, not that it was intentional!
Now we move to John’s Gospel for the signs of Jesus calling others to faith, particularly those on the outer, and culpable sinners too, but open to persuasion, and so to growth in faith and understanding and acceptance of who Jesus really is. This is in contrast to a few earlier encounters with religious authorities in Jerusalem and Nicodemus, who has earlier come to Jesus at night, searching for truth, but unprepared to commit to faith at that point, receding back into the darkness, as the presumed sinful Samaritan woman comes forward, albeit, understandably, slowly at first, but then becomes the first missionary, as the commentaries say, in bringing the Good News of Jesus to her own people, who respond first to her testimony, their faith in him then reinforced by personally encountering Jesus himself.
It’s a bit of a classic story, given the unlikely nature of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan sinner, and moreover female. (And here’s a modern depiction of the scene by artist He Qi) I like my friend MSC Claude Mostowik’s take on it: “The basic purpose of the story is establish the full equality in the community between Samaritan Christians and Jewish Christians. It is a powerful lesson about inclusiveness in our church, and about the role of women as disciples and theologians… Jesus sees her, where to others she is invisible… The limitations of time, religiosity, culture, and gender do not define how he sees her. He recognises her human dignity and make her aware that she belongs to his circle.”
The symbolism of water is not lost, beginning with natural thirst, then moving to a deeper level of understanding that Jesus offers a spiritual dimension which is enduring for those who respond in faith. Natural sustenance for basic physical needs is an obvious and necessary starting point, with the follow-up of feeding the crowds with bread (and fish) in John 6, before moving to Jesus as the “Bread of Life”, which now endures as Eucharist, which we celebrate and receive now.
It’s a very human encounter, as Jesus reaches out to the woman at the well, and where she is somewhat taken aback and reluctant to engage with him, particularly given the poor relationship, even overt hostility between Jews and Samaritans. Secondly, it was taboo for an adult male to associate with a woman publicly in such a scenario, at the well. But, don’t we know that Jesus crosses the boundaries on a regular basis, in reaching out to all and sundry, but even moreso to those on the fringe, sinners in general, women and children, wherever the opportunity arose, as we see in this instance. We can just take his actions for granted, but in fact, it was very much countercultural and in contravention of religious conventions and practices of the time.
His insight into the human condition is evident in the way he picks up on her 5 husbands, and current absent partner, but expressed in a non-judgmental way, then offering her new hope for a fresh start in his call to faith in his person and his message. Then again, it is suggested that she is symbolic of the Samaritans, whose religion the Jewish people saw as debased and tainted with idolatry. So the 5 husbands could well be a reference to the false gods the Samaritans had been sometimes caught up in worshipping.
She first seems to take Jesus’ words literally, as if offering her the opportunity of having a regular supply of fresh water at home, without having to come to the well in the heat of the day, with no explanation given as to how this might happen! The best plumbing could offer back then was not ‘on tap’, so to speak, but via Roman aqueducts, and it would be doubtful the Samaritans had access to anything like that!!
Then, in stages, she realizes Jesus is pointing to something deeper within, a spiritual dimension beyond the physical, along with a challenge to conversion, and she responds by going back to share her story and tell her people of her awakening faith in Jesus, as someone more than just another itinerant Jewish rabbi seeking followers along the way.
As Brendan Byrne SJ puts it: “The drama of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well shows how one person’s conversion in conversation with Jesus, foreshadows and indeed leads to a world-wide outreach of salvation.” Once Jesus has broken down the social and ethnic barriers, “she is already grasping something of the true gift that Jesus has to give her, of which ordinary water was simply a symbol: the life-giving gift of the Spirit and revelation of the truth”, which she then goes on to share with others, acknowledging that Jesus has helped her gain insight into her own life, “with all of its ups and downs, failure and wanderings, not as a disjointed series of episodes, many without meaning, but as a coherent story – an unfolding story of salvation.”
I conclude by quoting “Living Water” – A reflection from Jim Hasse SJ:
‘This man not only eats with sinners and outcasts. He’s also too friendly with women, even foreign women. How can he be a prophet?’
But the woman thinks:
‘He’s different. His closeness is not a man’s invitation. His nearness is God’s invitation: God’s invitation to change, God’s invitation to discipleship, God’s invitation to life-giving water. My invitation to closeness with God.’” And so it is for us – you and me.
Now, this week, after Mass, for those who wish, we can hear about Priscilla in Zimbabwe, which is experiencing an intense drought, exacerbated by climate change. With the support of Caritas Australia in Hwange, Priscilla learnt conservation farming skills to grow drought-resistant crops and started poultry farming to support her family during the current food crisis.
(Project Compassion Video – Week 3)
john hannon 12th March 2023