Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading, from Exodus, does not provide our best chapter as followers of God. After being liberated from Egyptian slavery by Moses, these refugees found themselves thirsty in the middle of the desert. They turned on Moses and accused him of forcing their liberation claiming: “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock?” In desperation Moses cried out to God who instructed Moses to take his staff and strike a rock (in Horeb) and cause water to flow from it. When Moses did this and water flowed from it. Water also claims center stage in today’s Gospel. Jesus and his disciples came to a Samaritan town called Sychar. While his disciples went into town, Jesus sat by a nearby well. While he was there a Samaritan woman came to draw water from the well. Jesus asked her to get him a drink, but the woman expressed surprise that Jesus (a Jew) spoke to her (a Samaritan). Jesus then told her that he could provide “living water.” She scoffed at this as Jesus had no bucket and no way to get this living water. But when Jesus told her that after drinking this living water she would never be thirsty again she got excited at the idea of not having to walk to the well each day. Then Jesus told her he knew that she had five husbands and was not married to the man she was currently living with. She immediately recognized that Jesus was a prophet but was still troubled that he was a Jew and she was a Samaritan. Jesus answered this by telling her that she “will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”
One of the annoyances of professing belief in Jesus Christ is the recognition that we are called to love people who are hard to love. And, in our first reading, we find no better example than “the people” in the reading from Exodus. Lest we forget, these were the people who were enslaved in Egypt and cried out to God for relief. God, through Moses, chose this group not only for liberation from slavery, but also as God’s Chosen People from that day forward to today and into the future.
And at the first opportunity they immediately began to complain. Now on one hand it is fair that they feared dying of thirst in the desert, but they made it sound as if God and Moses kidnapped them from paradise. I spoke about this three years ago, but I could easily see God and Moses sending them back to Egypt and finding another Chosen People (speaking only for myself I could easily see Hawaii as the Promised Land).
God, in his mercy and love, did something remarkable. He provided water, certainly, but he involved Moses and some of the elders of Israel in the solution. God didn’t say: “look for the water under that rock.” Instead he instructed Moses to strike a rock with his staff (the staff Moses used to part the sea) to begin the flow of life saving water. The people could then clearly see that God will ensure their safety and that Moses was a trustworthy leader. In other words their future lay in both God’s actions (providing the water) and ours (Moses striking the rock). In this way the ungrateful people become the Chosen People.
The transformation from outcast to chosen continues in John’s Gospel. This Gospel is long and a great deal happens, but much of it lies below the surface.
Many of you know this, but I’m a big baseball fan. When I tell this to people, a significant percentage tell me that they can’t watch baseball because “it’s too boring.” I’ve given up trying to explain that the more you learn about the game the more interesting it becomes.
I see the same thing in today’s Gospel. If we read this and reduce it to “Jesus meets a woman, asks for a drink, and tells her that he will provide water that will save her,” it’s a pretty boring reading. But there is so much more to this Gospel.
We begin our understanding of this reading with the recognition that Jews saw Samaritans as beneath contempt. Jews saw Samaritans as frauds who claimed to be chosen of God but had wandered off. The parable of the Good Samaritan makes its point because no Jews thought of Samaritans as good.
And yet Jesus and his disciples travel to Sychar. But their location is hardly the most important point. The shocking development in today’s Gospel lies in the interaction between Jesus and the unnamed Samaritan woman. It’s hard to imagine that anyone other than this woman would be lower on the pecking order than her.
I’ve already spoken of how she was a Samaritan. Don’t even get me started on the place of women at this time and in this place. Volumes can be (and have been) written on how poorly women were regarded then, and two weeks ago I spoke about how Eve has been vilified in our history. According to the customs of the day this woman should have kept her head down and her mouth shut as she drew water from the well. For his part Jesus should have ignored her.
But he didn’t. Against the rules he not only spoke to her, he made a request. He made himself in need of a favor. This unnamed woman answered in her surprise and probably feared for her safety; she reminded him of their roles toward each other. I can only imagine how surprised she must have been at his claim to provide living water.
When we hear the phrase “living water” it may not mean much to us, but it meant a great deal to her. “Living water” was water that flowed; it was river water rather than pond water and living water from a well meant that it tapped into an underground river. For good reason it was believed to be purer and healthier as it contained fewer impurities. This well held value as it provided living water, but the water provided no value to anyone without a bucket or a method of scooping it up.
And finally we read the most astounding part of this Gospel. Jesus recognized that this woman was not only held in contempt by men, but by other women. This woman walked from her home to the well in the “sixth hour.” It’s easy for us to ignore this, but the sixth hour comes in the middle of the day, the worst time to walk long distances. Most women walked to the well close to sunrise, in the cooler part of the day, and they walked in groups. We have reason to believe that the woman in the Gospel encountered Jesus because she was not welcome to join the other women at sunrise; she walked in the hotest part of the day because she was not welcome to walk with the other women.
This may be a stretch but I find validity when Jesus “outs” her by recognizing that she had what we would call a “complicated sexual history.” She had five husbands and was living with a man she was not married to. Throughout our history we’ve witnessed a double standard where men are congratulated for a sexual history that demeans women. We don’t know why her history included five husbands and a current partner but I doubt it finds it’s root in promiscuity.
And so we find in a relationship between our Redeemer and this Samaritan woman with a complicated sexual history. Jesus had every reason to ignore or condemn this woman. Instead he teaches her (and us) that his redemption will save all of us. He tells her that regardless of her ancestry, her sex, or her history, she is welcome in the Kingdom he proclaims.
These readings mean nothing to us if they don’t demand that we do the same thing. We live in a time where racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance claim an increasing role. We are called to break with custom and reach out to those we are supposed to hate.