3rd Sunday Lent 2017
Third Sunday of Lent
Jesus, tired and thirsty from his journey, sat down at the well. The hour was about noon. John 4, 5-42
The symbol of water runs like a stream through all of today’s readings. In the first reading from Exodus, we find Moses, at God’s direction (and to protect himself from being stoned), striking the rock with his staff: “You are to strike the rock, and water will flow from it for the people to drink” (Exodus 17, 6). In the second reading from Romans, Paul describes the love of God as a flood “poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5, 5). And the gospel is filled with images of water.
Everyone knows the centrality of water in sustaining life. We also know its cleansing qualities, how it can clean away the dirt and grime that diminishes and destroys life. In his encounter with the woman at Jacob’s well, Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah, describes himself as life-giving water, and discloses that his principal mission is to reconcile all people with God.
Today’s gospel story reminds me of an incident in the first Harry Potter book, The Philosopher’s Stone (originally, The Sorcerer’s Stone). Harry and his friend, Ron have just rescued Hermione Granger from a mountain troll. Till that point in the story, Hermione has been an outcast. But when Harry and Ron are about to be penalised by their teacher, Professor McGonagall, Hermione rescues them in a manner than stuns them: “Ron dropped his wand. Hermione Granger, telling a downright lie to a teacher?” When the excitement dies down the three students come together as all the students gather for a meal: “Hermione, however, stood alone by the door, waiting for them. There was a very embarrassed pause. Then, none of them looking at each other, they all said ‘Thanks,’ and hurried off to get plates. But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.” (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone, Ch. 10, Halloween)
Hermione had been an outsider, and she knew it, too. She had no reason to believe that her situation would change. But then, surprisingly, it did.
The scene that plays out in today’s gospel has a similar impact on us, even though we know the whole story and its intent. We know that Jesus came for all people, with a preference for the lonely, the marginalised and the rejected. But it took time for that message to sink in, even to sink into us. So, in John’s story, this unnamed woman comes to the well with no reason to expect anything in her life to change. As a Samaritan, a woman, and a person who has had multiple partners, she has little reason to expect anything good to come out of meeting up with a Jew, who was a stranger and a male.
But Jesus showed her that God was up to doing something new. (cf. Isaiah 43, 19: “Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it? There it is! I’m making a road through the desert, rivers in the wastelands”). The encounter begins with what may seem an ordinary request. Jesus asks her for a drink. She sees this for what it is - a transgression of boundaries. When she hesitates, Jesus seizes the opportunity to speak of a different kind of water, one that satisfies every thirst and gushes with eternal life for anyone who will drink it.
Jesus pushes the conversation a bit more, speaking of a time when the divisions between God’s people will be healed, when true worship will be centred neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. They, and, by implication, all people, will worship together in spirit and truth. The woman seems to understand the direction in which Jesus is leading her, for she also has been waiting for the Messiah. That is the moment for John to deliver the punch-line of the story, and Jesus says: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
This marks a shift in the story. The Samaritan woman’s life is transformed. She is no longer an outsider, for she has been brought into the kingdom that Jesus has come to realise. She has become a member of the family of God, transformed by the living water offered to her by Jesus. She now knows that she is valued and loved, and that Jesus the Messiah has come, and has come for her.
And that’s the very same message of today’s gospel for us. Moreover, we are explicitly told to rid ourselves of the kind of unspoken thoughts attributed to Jesus’ disciples: “What do you want from her? What are you talking to her about?” (John 4, 27) Notionally, we can accept that Jesus has come for all people, yet, in practice, we can find ourselves thinking: “But surely not for people like that Samaritan woman.”
A telling aspect of this story is that Jesus did not condemn her. Neither did he send her away, urging her to change her life. In her elation, she hurried off to share her experience with those who had previously scorned her. She became a disciple herself, and her testimony was so effective that those who heard it came to Jesus and “begged him to stay with them.” (John 4, 40) They too were changed, just as she had been.
Like the Samaritan woman and so many others before us, we are invited to come to Jesus in our frailty and brokenness. And the encounter leads to his sending us, too, to give testimony, through our lives, to the light and life and love that he offers to all.
Sadly, much of our world is gripped by fear of the stranger. Countries like Australia, Hungary and the United States are closing their borders to refugees. It was, therefore, heartening for me to read, recently, of a group of people in Missoula, Montana, who have opened their hearts to refugees from Laos, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria. They call themselves Soft Landing Missoula, and their efforts are having such an impact on fellow citizens that more and more are joining the group and welcoming refugees to their “well”. They are breaking down the fear and prejudice that label people of other religions and cultures as dangerous and undesirable. It is the inspiration of groups like Soft Landing Missoula that can help us to move beyond fear, suspicion and selfishness to embrace and live the challenge of today’s gospel.