Gospel for the Third Sunday in Lent (19 March 2017)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?
Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” .....
“Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” ......
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” (John 4:5-42 – NRSV)
“In 4:1–6 Jesus moves away from Judea on a journey to Galilee via Samaria. The motivations are given for Jesus’ departure from Judea (v. 1) and for his presence in Samaria (v. 4). The time and place of the encounters that will fill vv. 7–42 are provided (vv. 5–6). This detailed introduction sets the scene for all the Samaritan episodes that follow. Once this is established, the first of two moments of encounter occurs between Jesus and a Samaritan. Jesus initiates a dialogue with the woman through the use of an imperative (v. 7: dos moi). He will not address her in this way again until the dialogue changes direction in v. 16 where a triple imperative appears (hypage phōnēson ... elthe enthade). In vv. 7–15 Jesus and the Samaritan woman are at cross purposes over thirst, wells, the gift of water, and life. These themes disappear in vv. 16–30, where the question of the person of Jesus and the place and nature of true worship are discussed.” (Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 115.)
Sychar: Almost all the manuscripts read “Sychar” but the site is probably Shechem. (See Raymond Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes, (Vol. 29), Yale University Press, 2008, 169.)
Jacob’s well: “A well about 100 feet deep is first mentioned in this area in Christian pilgrim sources of the 4th century; Jacob’s well is not mentioned in the OT. The site presently identified as Jacob’s well at the foot of Mount Gerizim can be accepted with confidence. The descriptions of ch. 4 show a good knowledge of the local Palestinian scene.” (Ibid.)
It was about noon: Literally “the sixth hour”. This is an odd time for the woman to come to fetch water. Does it perhaps reflect her isolation in the community?
Samaritan: “The Samaritans are the descendants of two groups: (a) the remnant of the native Israelites who were not deported at the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C.; (b) foreign colonists brought in from Babylonia and Media by the Assyrian conquerors of Samaria (2 Kings 17:24 ff. gives an anti-Samaritan account of this). There was theological opposition between these northerners and the Jews of the South because of the Samaritan refusal to worship at Jerusalem. This was aggravated by the fact that after the Babylonian exile the Samaritans had put obstacles in the way of the Jewish restoration of Jerusalem, and that in the 2nd century B.C. the Samaritans had helped the Syrian monarchs in their wars against the Jews. In 128 B.C. the Jewish high priest burned the Samaritan temple on Gerizim.” (Raymond Brown, op cit, 170.)
woman: “Jesus normally uses this form of address .... ‘Woman’ is not an entirely happy translation and is somewhat archaic. However, modern English is deficient in a courteous title of address for a woman who is no longer a ‘Miss’. Both ‘Lady’ and ‘Madam’ have taken on an unpleasant tone when used as an address without an accompanying proper name.” (Raymond Brown, op cit, 172.)
salvation is from the Jews: “Cf. Ps 76:1: ‘In Judah God is known’. Bultmann would reduce this to a gloss since it does not fit in with Johannine hostility to ‘the Jews’. However, the Jews against whom Jesus elsewhere speaks harshly really refers to that section of the Jewish people that is hostile to Jesus, and especially to their rulers. Here, speaking to a foreigner, Jesus gives to the Jews a different significance, and the term refers to the whole Jewish people. This line is a clear indication that the Johannine attitude to the Jews cloaks neither an anti-Semitism of the modern variety nor a view that rejects the spiritual heritage of Judaism.” (Ibid.)
About twenty years ago I read a particularly inspiring book – The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (Penguin, 1996). The author – James McBride – was one of twelve children. The book is about his amazing mother – a white, Jewish woman, born in Poland, migrated to the USA as a two-year old with her family, survivor of serious domestic violence as a child, convert to Christianity and married to a black man whom she met in Harlem, New York. McBride describes a conversation he had as a child with his mother, in which he asked her whether God was black or white:
“A deep sigh. ‘Oh boy .... God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit’. ‘Does he like black or white people better?’ ‘He loves all people. He’s a spirit’. ‘What’s a spirit?’ ‘A spirit’s a spirit’. ‘What color is God’s spirit?’ ‘It doesn’t have a color’, she said. ‘God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color’.” (50-51)
In today’s Gospel, we hear a conversation a bit like that. Jews are not supposed to do this, Samaritans are not supposed to do that, Jesus is not supposed to talk to a woman in the public square ..... And so it goes. Like James McBride’s mother, Jesus relentlessly peels back the layers – the societal and cultural expectations, the pre-definitions and stereotypes. The truth lies beyond these.
Actually, we do need our constructs – pre-definitions, names, expectations, laws .... all those great and small fabrications that allow us to deal with other people and remain more or less sane as we negotiate the complexities of a world that will always remain ultimately incomprehensible and uncontrollable. The danger is that we start to think that the way we have constructed our social world is actually the ultimate truth of things.
Our definitions of God are not God. Religion and the symbols and rituals, dogmas and laws of the Church, are a means to an end. When they become ends in themselves we have what the Australian poet, Les Murray, has called, ecclesiolatry.
Jesus gently but firmly leads the Samaritan woman beyond the various constructs – both cultural and religious – that stand in the way of the Good News. Jesus himself embodies that News. It is the News already implicit in the Exodus Event. God liberates the people from the oppression of Pharaoh. This is a political and social liberation, a harbinger of a much more profound existential liberation that is to begin in the wilderness. In the wilderness the people are invited into a Covenant of Love. This Covenant is not so much a contract with God as it is a journey with God. In and through that journey God is committed to loving the people – and us – into freedom.
The question Jesus poses to the Samaritan woman and to us is, “Do you want the freedom?”