Gospel for the Third Sunday in Lent (15 March 2020)
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.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “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.”
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
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.)
sir: The Greek word is Kyrie – from kyrios – can mean “Sir” or “Lord”. Raymond Brown suggests that “most likely there is a progression from one to the other meaning as the woman uses it with increasing respect in vss. 11, 15, and 19” (Ibid).
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.)
astonished that he was speaking with a woman: The Greek verb – ethaumazon – expresses a strong reaction. Some translations use the English word “shocked”. Raymond Brown notes that rabbinic documents warn against speaking to women in public (Raymond Brown, op cit, 173). The fear of being tempted by a woman was strong in the culture. One commentator has even argued that there may be a suggestion in the woman’s denial of having a husband that she is presenting herself as available to Jesus: “Bligh, pp. 335–36, has a curious interpretation. He thinks that in claiming to have no husband the woman was lying to Jesus because she had matrimonial designs on him; he points out that in the parallel OT scenes of men and women at the well (see NOTE on vs. 7) there is a matrimonial situation, and that Jesus has been described as a bridegroom in 3:29” (Raymond Brown, op cit, 171).
In today’s Gospel – John 4:5-42 – we have the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar. It is a long and surprisingly detailed description of an event from which the disciples are mostly absent. Only two people know the essential story – Jesus and the Samaritan woman. It seems reasonable that the Samaritan woman – so deeply touched by her encounter with Jesus – is the story’s source.
Jesus asks the woman for a drink and she reminds him that she is a Samaritan and he is a Jew. John has a note, in case we needed to be reminded: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans”. A number of other translations have, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans”. Either way it is clear that there is a wall. To the Jews and Samaritans, it is an impenetrable wall, a wall cemented in place by generations of story-telling and persistence in customs. This wall – and any other wall – is not impenetrable to Jesus. In fact here – and in other instances as reported in the Gospels – Jesus penetrates the walls that human beings build. Sometimes those walls are built by individuals out of their anxiety or fear or selfishness. Sometimes they are built out of religious or cultural conviction. Walls separate. They give impetus to prejudice, alienation and even violence.
Google “Pope Francis + build bridges not walls” and you will find a number of times that the Holy Father has emphasized the need for us today to reach out, seek reconciliation, find common ground, seek dialogue .... build bridges, not walls. For example, Pope Francis spoke along these lines on the flight back from Morocco to Rome last year in his responses to questions from journalists: “In the dialogue here in Morocco we saw that we need bridges, and we feel pain when we see persons that prefer to build walls. Why do we have pain? Because those that build walls end up being prisoners of the walls that they have built. On the other hand, those who build bridges go forward. .... To build bridges is for me something that almost goes beyond the human, it needs very great efforts. .... The bridge is for human communication. This is most beautiful, and I have seen it here in Morocco. Instead, walls are against communication; they are for isolation, and those who build them will become prisoners” (Gerard O’Connell, “Pope Francis: Build bridges, not walls”, America (online), 31 March 2019).
Is it possible that the “walls out there” – that is, the barriers, of whatever kind, that keep us from being reconciled with each other – are simply projections of “walls in here” – that is, barriers within that prevent us from being reconciled with ourselves? Only Jesus can provide the ultimate healing for this tragic situation. However, we can cooperate. A good first step is to face the truth of our own lives. Ask yourself the question: What is happening with me? And listen. Submit to the truth of what emerges.