Third Sunday of Lent (Year A)
If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts
Christ’s “proto-mission” to the “foreign land” of Samaria
This third Sunday of Lent of cycle year A is also called Samaritan Woman Sunday, from the gospel episode we have just heard. This passage is to be connected with those we will hear on the following two Sundays (the healing of the born blind man and the resurrection of Lazarus) and in this way opens the Lenten triptych for a (re)discovery of the gift of baptism, as emphasized in the liturgical commentaries. Thus, “the underlying theme of these three Sundays is how faith can be nurtured continually even in the face of sin (the Samaritan woman), ignorance (the blind man), and death (Lazarus). These are the ‘deserts’ through which we travel through life, and in which we discover that we are not alone, because God is with us” (Homiletic Directory, 69).
Keeping in mind such a liturgical setting as well as the tremendous richness of today’s very long Gospel passage, let us go into just a few details that help us deepen our understanding of the mystery of Christ’s mission in order to revive our faith in Him and our missionary zeal, “following in His footsteps.”
1. “He had to pass through Samaria.” The strange context of Jesus’ journey
The almost chance encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman took place in a very strange context, as can be seen from the biblical account. First, before the time when “Jesus came to a town of Samaria called Sychar,” according to what the evangelist points out, “He left Judea and returned to Galilee. He had to pass through Samaria.” (Jn 4:3-4) This “had to” of Jesus does not seem to indicate a “geographical” necessity of the journey, for one could go from Judea to Galilee by another route, that along the Jordan River avoiding the mountainous area of Samaria. The verb then might indicate more of a theological-spiritual necessity, in accordance with the frequent use of the term in Luke’s Gospel to emphasize the fulfillment of the divine plan in Jesus’ life and mission. In other words, Jesus now “had” to pass through Samaria, not because he was forced by the circumstances, but in order to follow the path of the mission laid out by the Father, the one who sent him. It is therefore a “missionary foray,” to use modern terminology, by Jesus with the disciples into the “foreign” land of the Samaritans, because, as the gospel itself explains, “for Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.” It is their “proto-mission” to Samaria according to the divine plan.
In this way, the strange encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well is well contemplated and predicted (almost) as the central point of the mission, even though everything seemed to happen by chance: weary Jesus “sat down there at the well. It was about noon,” and there “a woman of Samaria came to draw water.” As is well known, “noon” in those areas is the hottest time of the day and consequently no one went to draw water during those hours. Perhaps both Jesus and the woman knew this. She, knowing this, went to the well at that time to avoid meeting people (perhaps to spare herself the rumors about her private life), while Jesus knew and therefore stopped there precisely to meet the woman for a confidential conversation on a unique occasion.
In the life and mission of Jesus, the one sent by the Father, nothing happened by chance. Every encounter happened according to God’s plan of salvation for the people Jesus met. Therefore, every occasion was a good time for Jesus to talk about the Kingdom, to proclaim God’s good news, to bring people closer to divine love. And He was well aware of such a full-time mission according to the will of God the Father and of His “responsibility” to every person He encountered, regarded by Him as the gift of God. This is seen from his statement later in John’s Gospel: “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to me, because I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it [on] the last day” (Jn 6:37-39).
So perhaps it will be for his missionary disciples as well. In their lives there will be nothing by chance. Every encounter with people will always be a propitious opportunity to get in touch with them and to convey the message of God’s love and the Gospel of Christ in the concrete situation in which they live. It will always be an opportune time (even with all the inconveniences of the situation!) for a deeper conversation about Christ’s mission and identity, just as happened precisely between Jesus and the woman at Jacob’s well. The fundamental question for us, his modern disciples, is whether we have the same mission consciousness as Jesus, the same sense of responsibility for the salvation of the soul (indeed of all souls!) and the same courage of proclamation as he did.
2. “Give me a drink.” Jesus’ (strange) thirst and hunger, the gift of living water and real food
In fact, the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman represents a small “catechesis” that slowly clarifies Jesus’ identity and his mission. It begins with the natural request “Give me a drink” from Jesus, “tired from his journey.” Here is the beautiful Gospel paradox: the one who asks for a drink is the one who gives living water; and, as will be seen later, Jesus who needed to eat is the one who gives the true food for eternal life. He will later reiterate, again in John’s Gospel, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst” (Jn. 6:35)
Mystically, the fact that Jesus asks for a drink to later announce His gift of living water is related to and reaches its fulfillment in what would later happen during His crucifixion and death, when He will say “I thirst” and then from His side “there came out blood and water.” In this light, the seemingly en passant mention of the time of the encounter with the Samaritan woman “about noon” (or literally sixth hour according to the Hebrew division of time) is also significant, recalling the beginning of the last three hours of Jesus crucified until His death (cf. Mark 15:33-34: At noon darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). Jesus’ thirst made explicit at Jacob’s well seems to always remain in Him, and His request for drink, made to the people, continues along His mission until His death! Such thirst symbolizes God’s thirst for the faith and love of His creatures. (It is no coincidence that Jesus’ phrase “I thirst” is particularly dear to Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her missionaries of charity.)
From a missionary perspective, I would like to share a side note regarding “Give me a drink”. On the one hand, it is always a humble, real request for an essential need of the body of Jesus, the missionary of God, who never hides. Indeed, for those who give water to Him and His needy missionaries, Jesus promises a certain reward: “Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.” (Mk 9:41; Mt 10:42) Christ’s itinerant missionaries are never the ones who already have everything and dispense aid to everyone. On the contrary, in the intention of the same Jesus who sends them, they carry nothing on the road and therefore also know how to humbly ask for and receive help from the local people to whom they have been sent. On the other hand, such a request for the essential material support such as water will also be a provocation/occasion to enter the dialogue to announce the true water and true support for true life.
The gift of living water, promised here by Jesus, implies the one intrinsically connected with faith in him, according to the already mentioned statement, “whoever believes in me will never thirst” (Jn. 6:35b). It thus points to the reality of baptism, by which each person recognizes and accepts Jesus not only as the Prophet of God, but as the Christ, Son of God, and Savior of the world, just like the Samaritan woman’s and her countrymen’s journey to come to faith in Christ. The living water is thus revealed in the very person of Christ, sent by the Father for the salvation of the world. Moreover, such water then, in a further moment will be explained as identifiable with the Spirit of Jesus who vivifies every believer into new life in Christ (cf. Jn. 7:37-38).
In this light, we understand Jesus’ statement to the Samaritan woman, “whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst,” because life in God is the eternal fulfillment of happiness. Indeed, to continue with Jesus’ teaching, “the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (for him/her and for others), because every believer in Christ will then be able to pass on the same divine life and Spirit to others. Such believers, finally, will be the true worshipers of God, who will worship him “in Spirit and truth,” that is, according to the simplest interpretation, in Spirit and in Christ who is God’s truth for the world.
3. The joy of the gospel in the Samaritan woman and her countrymen
The reaction of the Samaritan woman after discovering the person of Jesus is significant. As the Gospel text reports, she “left her water jar and went into the town” to tell the people about Jesus Christ without fear. The image of the left water jar may indicate, yes, the woman’s haste, but also that that vessel will no longer be needed by the woman, because from that encounter with Jesus onward she will never be thirsty again! In missionary perspective, it will be important to recall Pope Francis’ reflection that offers an actualizing reading of the Samaritan woman’s action:
Indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love. Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer say that we are “disciples” and “missionaries,” but rather that we are always “missionary disciples.” If we are not convinced, let us look at those first disciples, who, immediately after encountering the gaze of Jesus, went forth to proclaim him joyfully, “We have found the Messiah!” (Jn 1:41). The Samaritan woman became a missionary immediately after speaking with Jesus and many Samaritans came to believe in him “because of the woman’s testimony” (Jn 4:39). So too, Saint Paul, after his encounter with Jesus Christ, “immediately proclaimed Jesus” (Acts 9:20; cf. 22:6-21). So what are we waiting for? (Evangelii Gaudium 120)
To these holy words we need to add nothing more, except for a brief comment on a curious detail at the end of the Gospel account. It is precisely the final phrase with which the Samaritans addressed the woman: “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.” This underscores the genuine faith of the Samaritans, not from hearsay but from direct experience with Jesus. From the sentence, however, we can imagine that after the mission of proclaiming the person of Christ to the people, the woman perhaps boasted a little too much about her “merit,” hence the almost rebuke, “We no longer believe because of your word.” The true disciple-missionary of Christ will also know when to step aside, as Pope Francis mentioned in a recent reflection on the figure of John the Baptist. This, indeed, will be the model for every prophet and envoy of God in humbly acknowledging that he is not the Christ, savior for the people who hear him. Moreover, he keeps clear the motto of his life and mission, “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30).
We pray that all of us may have, on the one hand, the enthusiasm to proclaim Christ like the Samaritan woman, and on the other hand, the joy like the Baptist to see Christ “growing” and us “diminishing” more and more in our missions.
O God, source of life, you offer to humanity parched by thirst the living water of grace that flows from the rock, Christ the Savior; grant your people the gift of the Spirit, that they may know how to profess their faith with strength, and proclaim with joy the wonders of your love. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.