Third Sunday of Lent (Year A)

10 March 2023

Ex 17:3-7;
Ps 95;
Rom 5:1-2,5-8;
Jn 4:5-42

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.


Useful points to consider:

From a treatise on John by Saint Augustine, bishop (Tract. 15, 10-12. 16-17: CCL 36, 154-156)

A woman came. She is a symbol of the Church not yet made righteous but about to be made righteous. Righteousness follows from the conversation. She came in ignorance, she found Christ, and he enters into conversation with her. Let us see what it is about, let us see why a Samaritan woman came to draw water. The Samaritans did not form part of the Jewish people: they were foreigners. The fact that she came from a foreign people is part of the symbolic meaning, for she is a symbol of the Church. The Church was to come from the Gentiles, of a different race from the Jews.

We must then recognize ourselves in her words and in her person, and with her give our own thanks to God. She was a symbol, not the reality; she foreshadowed the reality, and the reality came to be. She found faith in Christ, who was using her as a symbol to teach us what was to come. She came then to draw water. She had simply come to draw water, in the normal way of man or woman.

Jesus says to her: Give me water to drink. For his disciples had gone to the city to buy food. The Samaritan woman therefore says to him: How is it that you, though a Jew, ask me for water to drink, though I am a Samaritan woman? For Jews have nothing to do with Samaritans.

The Samaritans were foreigners; Jews never used their utensils. The woman was carrying a pail for drawing water. She was astonished that a Jew should ask her for a drink of water, a thing that Jews would not do. But the one who was asking for a drink of water was thirsting for her faith.

Listen now and learn who it is that asks for a drink. Jesus answered her and said: If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” perhaps you might have asked him and he would have given you living water.

He asks for a drink, and he promises a drink. He is in need, as one hoping to receive, yet he is rich, as one about to satisfy the thirst of others. He says: If you knew the gift of God. The gift of God is the Holy Spirit. But he is still using veiled language as he speaks to the woman and gradually enters into her heart. Or is he already teaching her? What could be more gentle and kind than the encouragement he gives? If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” perhaps you might ask and he would give you living water.

Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World, Evangelii Gaudium

Person to person

127. Today, as the Church seeks to experience a profound missionary renewal, there is a kind of preaching which falls to each of us as a daily responsibility. It has to do with bringing the Gospel to the people we meet, whether they be our neighbours or complete strangers. This is the informal preaching which takes place in the middle of a conversation, something along the lines of what a missionary does when visiting a home. Being a disciple means being constantly ready to bring the love of Jesus to others, and this can happen unexpectedly and in any place: on the street, in a city square, during work, on a journey.

128. In this preaching, which is always respectful and gentle, the first step is personal dialogue, when the other person speaks and shares his or her joys, hopes and concerns for loved ones, or so many other heartfelt needs. Only afterwards is it possible to bring up God’s word, perhaps by reading a Bible verse or relating a story, but always keeping in mind the fundamental message: the personal love of God who became man, who gave himself up for us, who is living and who offers us his salvation and his friendship. This message has to be shared humbly as a testimony on the part of one who is always willing to learn, in the awareness that the message is so rich and so deep that it always exceeds our grasp. At times the message can be presented directly, at times by way of a personal witness or gesture, or in a way which the Holy Spirit may suggest in that particular situation. If it seems prudent and if the circumstances are right, this fraternal and missionary encounter could end with a brief prayer related to the concerns which the person may have expressed. In this way they will have an experience of being listened to and understood; they will know that their particular situation has been placed before God, and that God’s word really speaks to their lives.

Pope Francis, General Audience, Saint Peter's Square, Wednesday, 8 March 2023

The Council, furthermore reminds us that it is the task of the Church to continue the mission of Christ, who was “sent to preach the Gospel to the poor”; therefore, the document Ag gentes continues, “the Church, prompted by the Holy Spirit, must walk in the same path on which Christ walked: a path of poverty and obedience, of service and self-sacrifice to the death, from which death He came forth a victor by His resurrection” (AG, 5). If it remains faithful to this “path”, the mission of the Church is “an epiphany, or a manifesting of God’s decree, and its fulfilment in the world and in world history” (AG, 9).

Brothers and sisters, these brief comments also help us understand the ecclesial meaning of the apostolic zeal of each disciple-missionary. Apostolic zeal is not enthusiasm; it is another thing, it is a grace of God, that we must preserve. We must understand its meaning, because in the pilgrim and evangelizing People of God, there are no active or passive individuals. There are not those who preach, those who proclaim the Gospel in one way or another, and those who remain silent. “All the baptized”, says Evangelii gaudium, “whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, 120). Are you Christian? “Yes, I have received Baptism”. And do you evangelize?” “But what does this mean?” If you do not evangelize, if you do not bear witness, if you do not give that witness of the Baptism you have received, of the faith that the Lord gave you, you are not a good Christian. By virtue of the Baptism received and the consequent incorporation in the Church, every baptized person participates in the mission of the Church and, in this, in the mission of Christ the King, Priest and Prophet. Brothers and sisters, this task “is one and the same everywhere and in every condition, even though it may be carried out differently according to circumstances” (AG, 6). This invites us not to become rigid or fossilized; it redeems us from that restlessness that is not of God. The missionary zeal of the believer also expresses itself as a creative search for new ways of proclaiming and witnessing, new ways of encountering the wounded humanity that Christ took on.

Special Greetings to French-speaking pilgrims

Brothers and sisters, let us invoke the Holy Spirit, that this Lent may be a favorable time to revitalize our missionary dynamism by joyfully rendering service to the Gospel and humanity. God bless you!