SAINT JOSEPH OLD CATHEDRAL, OKLAHOMA CITY, OK
Exodus 17, 3-7 + Psalm 95 + Romans 5, 1-2, 5-8 + John 4, 5-42
John says that Jesus “had to pass” through Samaria to get from Judea to Galilee because something was going on with baptisms by his disciples in Galilee. There was probably a little competition between disciples of John and disciples of Jesus over who could baptize the most. At any rate, Jesus is headed to Galilee which is north of Judea with Samaria in between. It was probably the shortest way and may have had the best road. It would be like going to Stillwater up I-35 meaning you would have to pass through Logan County. However, there was hostility between Samaritans and Jews, and unless you were in a big hurry, it would be better to go another way. It was possible to go a little to east and up the Jordan River through Perea and the region of the Decapolis. Bethany was in Perea and well known to Jesus as well as the region of the Decapolis which we know he has visited before. He knew the way. So, this suggestion that he “had to” go through Samaria does not mean it was the only way. He went there for another reason, not because he had to get away from the Pharisees in Judea and go to Galilee to straighten out those disciples; but because he had to make an offer to a representative of marginalized people. “If you only knew the gift of God” he thinks to himself, and off he goes
I think that this awareness is important for reflecting upon these verses. He did not go there to pick a fight or because he was in a hurry. He went there to be present to and reveal himself to outsiders, enemies of the Jews, and even more so, to a woman, an unaccompanied woman whose reputation was scandalous. We know all of that even before the conversation begins, and knowing this then gives us more to reflect upon than simply the words of the text.
After years of living with this story and after more than forty-five years of reflecting upon it in church, I see something new this year. It occurs to me that there are three encounters with Jesus in this story: a private one with the woman at the well, another with the disciples who return with the groceries, and a third encounter when the woman comes back with a crowd of folks. Look at the difference between what each group brings!
The first encounter is a deeply personal one that tells a conversion story in which this woman moves from hostility to curiosity and on to faith. Her conversion moves along through her conversation with Christ who unconditionally accepts her without any judgment about her past. He treats her with respect. She has some dignity in his sight, and she listens. What seems to matter is the present moment when two enemies face one another, and when a sinner meets the savior. It is uncomplicated and grace filled. Never mind the past. Never mind the fact that Jews and Samaritans are hostile over religious and political issues. What matters is that they speak, they listen, they care not about ideologies, but about one another. One is thirsty. One has a bucket, but she is thirsty too, but not for water. They both end up satisfied. The Pharisees have rejected Jesus. The Samaritans have accepted him. She has longed for a Messiah and thirsted for dignity and man who would stay with her. They both end up fulfilled.
Then comes the second encounter which I think stands in sharp contrast to the third. The disciples come to Jesus full of their opinions and judgments about Jesus who does not seem, in their opinion, to know what he’s doing and who he has been talking with. They bring groceries and suggest that he eat something they have brought. He refuses. In contrast to them comes a crowd led by the woman who said: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.” The disciples return with groceries. The woman returns with a crowd of people who left the city to see him. What I find amazing is that this Samaritan woman is a more successful evangelist than these disciples, and we ought to wonder how it is so. Perhaps John’s complex stories are open to a variety of interpretation and layers of meaning. Each one of them is a capsule of the whole Gospel. John is a master of symbolism and detail. This happens at noon. Other things happen at noon as well in the Gospel, and we can connect the dots. Water opens up any number of avenues to explore more of this text. The well itself is very symbolic, and that well is historically important. He says: “Give me a drink.” and he will say that again on a cross. John is doing more here at this point of his Gospel than continuing to reveal the divine plan for salvation in his dramatic and complex story.
As we, the church, listen again to these verses at an age in history when we are being led into a time of new evangelization, there is no excuse for failing to see and learn something about evangelization in these verses. Here she is, both a convert and an evangelist. We can learn from her. We can see again the power unleashed in us when we know that in spite of all we have ever done, God loves, respects, and treats us with dignity. We can see again how once we listen to Christ, to the Word of God, and come from that conversation into a trusting relationship with Christ nothing can stop us from spreading the news and offering to share that gift of faith we sometimes do not know is there. Then, look at the way she awakens the others to the gift. What a wonderful model of evangelization! Once she asks about the Messiah and Jesus replies: “I am he,” her faith comes to fullness. All that is left is for her to become an apostle to her people. She leaves the water jar. That is a startling detail. Water jars are important. That jar is what sustained her in the past. Her presence among her people is all it takes. Her words are not particularly persuasive or for that matter very important, just her presence. You can sense the joy in her, the freedom she has found, and the desire that comes out with the words: “Come and See.” What they first see is her joy, and instead of telling them what to believe or how to behave, she simply asks a question, and they leave their town and everything it means. There is John’s lesson to a church that is awakening to the spirit of evangelization. It is a spirit of joy and of freedom, and it comes from recognizing the gift of faith that we have.