Special Gospel readings for the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Sundays of Lent (Cycle A) are offered to us: the Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus. All three have to do with the journey of our catechumens and candidates to the Easter sacraments. Just as an historical footnote, there was a time when these three weeks were the totality of “Lent,” the period proximate of pre-baptismal preparation (as opposed to the “classes,” which we would call remote preparation—and which, by the way, took three years!).
I was going to offer you a paraphrase of this Gospel in the light of the coronavirus crisis (“You can’t drink from my cup!”), but I will refrain. Instead, let’s consider this woman and the dialogue Jesus engages in with her. It’s an example of what Fr Dennis referred to as a “conversation of Jesus.”
Jesus expresses a human need: hot, tired, thirsty. For all the emphasis the Fourth Gospel places on Jesus’ unique and divine relationship with the Father, He is still presented as very human. He has needs. And He is willing to engage in unlikely people to see if they can respond to Him. This woman does, but quite cagily—“Why do you want to trust me, a foreigner/heretic/woman?” Jesus dismisses her self-dismissal and elevates the dialogue to refer to “living water.” It will quench her thirst forever. The question remains—what is she truly thirsting for?
I am not necessarily convinced that the woman was looking for another “liaison” at the well, but there is great tradition in the Bible of meeting a wife at a well: that’s where Isaac’s servant encountered Rebecca; that’s where Moses first met Zipporah. Jesus, one might say, is pursuing her as a representative of the entire Samaritan people: come home to your true spouse, the LORD God (as they will, in Acts 8:4ff.). Jesus is also not bothered by the woman’s past: 5 husbands and a live-in! If this encounter were to happen today, the first thing out of a priest’s mouth would likely be, “Let’s work on all those annulments; then we can talk about you.” Jesus almost laughs as He tells her “…everything I ever did!” He’s OK with the woman. It’s like the church marquee that states: “When the devil reminds you of your past, remind him of your future!” She is thirsty for self-respect and dignity; He offers it to her by being non-judgmental, not condemnatory—He leads her out of her self-image, into His image of her.
She becomes a missionary—she brings her townspeople to Jesus just like Andrew brought Peter, or like Philip brought Nathanael (John 1:40-51), or like Philip and Andrew brought Greeks to see Jesus (John 12:20ff.). They may not have had much respect for her before, but her enthusiasm convinces them. Yes, the fields are ripe for the harvest (John 4:35ff.).
What are the thirsts that drive us? What are our deepest longings (perhaps we don’t even know them for fear of finding them and thinking they can never be satisfied)? The gift of Lent is the opportunity, through fasting, to taste those longings; through prayer, to recognize and name them; and through almsgiving to encounter the One who can quench them.