Sunday, 19 March 2017

Lent Week 3 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Exodus 17:3-7; Psalm 95: Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42

Pope Paul VI described Jesus as the great evangelizer. We can regard his encounter with the Samaritan woman as a lesson, from the Master, in 'evangelizing'. What do we find?

They are brought together by a shared human need and vulnerability. He is tired and thirsty. She has come to draw water, presumably for her and her family's needs. It is the sixth hour, noon, and so the hottest part of the day. It is the meeting of a man and a woman, persons who are different and yet complementary, with the interest and potential that always accompanies such meetings. (I am influenced by a painting of the scene in the house where I live, which represents Jesus as handsome and the woman as beautiful, a mature man and a mature woman, looking at each other with interest and growing affection.)

The shared human need for water opens the conversation. His request for a drink breaks a number of taboos: man and woman talking alone, Jew and Samaritan sharing the same cup; 'how is it that a Jew asks me, a Samaritan, for a drink?' Pope Francis, in Evangelii gaudium, says that evangelizing means reaching out to others, going out to strangers and foreigners, leaving the comfort zone of our established ways of living and acting. 'Jesus breaks through the dull categories with which we would enclose him and constantly amazes us by his divine creativity' (EG 11).

We see this divine creativity immediately as he shifts the conversation to a deeper level: 'if you knew the gift of God, and who is asking, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water'.  He is speaking immediately of the Blessed Trinity and the communion in the Divine life which he has come to establish. But he does not immediately use that theological language or anything like it: for now the Spirit is 'the gift of God, living water' and the Eternal Son is 'the one who is asking'. The encounter remains simply human even while it begins to radiate with a transcendent meaning.

The woman, practical, wonders how he will get this living water to her since he has no bucket and the well is deep. 'Are you greater than Jacob, our father?' The newness of the gospel is always set within the framework of God's earlier deeds and in fact comes from the same sources. Here the woman establishes common ground with Jesus through remembering Jacob, a father older than the division between Jews and Samaritans. In speaking of the eternal newness of the gospel, Pope Francis speaks also of grateful remembrance from which the joy of evangelizing always arises. There are many things we must remember, the humanity and history we share with all other human beings, the common source of our being in God's love and our common destiny in His eternal kingdom.

Jesus explains that the living water he is speaking about is within, a spring within the person welling up to eternal life. The woman, for the moment, resists the charms of this mystical poet and answers, perhaps with a touch of sarcasm, 'so give me this water you are talking about so that I will not thirst again and will not need to come here either'.

There is another shift of gear and Jesus challenges her in a different way. He mentions her husband, she says she has none, he says she is right because she has had five. 'So you are not just a poet', she seems to say: 'I see that you are a prophet'. Is it a question of religious differences now? Perhaps she is offended that he is criticising polygamy, which seems to have been permissible among the Samaritans. To this day the Samaritans worship on Mount Gerizim, the Jews on Mount Zion. He seems to have introduced the question of religious difference and she reminds him of another aspect of it: where exactly is it that God wants his people to worship him?

Jesus deepens the reflection again. 'Woman', he says - it is how he addresses his mother in John 2 and John 19 - 'the hour is coming' when true worship will be neither here nor there but will be a worship of the Father in spirit and in truth. The woman seems to have had enough. It is as if she is saying 'whatever about all that, I know that when the Messiah comes he will show us all things'. And Jesus reveals to her that it is He who is speaking to her.

Significantly the woman leaves her jar behind and goes into the city, talking straightaway about the man she has met outside: 'can this be the Christ?' She has become a preacher of the good news, filled already with the living water (which is faith in Christ and the gift of the Spirit), and talking to others about the one she has encountered. The fields are white for harvest, Jesus says, as he sees the people streaming out of the town, coming to see him, their interest aroused by the testimony of the woman. There is joy in this work, Jesus continues, the joy of the gospel, sower and reaper rejoicing together, each one contributing to the freedom and flourishing of those coming to believe in Him.

Many Samaritans came to believe in him, we are told, because of the woman's testimony. And many more believed because of Jesus' word, since he who had stopped to have a drink at the well ended up staying with them for two days. We have heard for ourselves, they said, and 'we know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world'.

What do we find in this conversation that leads to evangelization? We find respect and equality from the beginning. We find an interest of each in the other. We find a mutual knowledge of each one's history and values. We find a speaking of the truth on both sides. We find a conversation that deepens rapidly, as Jesus leads the woman towards faith and her remarks open doors for what he says next. We find Jesus as a teacher of skill and delicacy, using poetic imagery (the teacher must use signs to illustrate his doctrine), asking provocative questions (the teacher must stretch the students with his questions) and we find growing affection (for the teacher must love his students).

Pope Francis quotes Pope Benedict saying that the Church grows 'by attraction'. Those who preach the gospel should 'point to a horizon of beauty' (EG 15) - this is what will capture and fascinate people, actions and words that have integrity, beauty, and holiness. In his encounter with the woman of Samaria, Jesus shows us how to do it.

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