March 19, 2017 (Third Sunday in Lent)
First Reading: Exodus 17: 3-7
Gospel Reading: John 4: 5-42
"Water, Thirst, & Drinking from Someone Else's Well"
Part I: Introduction
The season of Lent provides us with an opportunity to examine the condition of our spiritual lives in a special way. As we journey toward our ultimate meeting with our Creator, Lent gives us a chance to pause, to check the road-map, and see how far we've strayed off the path God has chosen for us to follow. Lent is a time for making decisions about ways to get back onto God's path for us and to reconcile ourselves with God.
Any time we go on a journey and follow a path or trail that has been marked out for us, even if it's just a short one, one of the things we must make sure we have enough of, is water. Experts tell us our bodies are made up of about 60% water. They say we could survive for a couple of weeks without food, but only a few days without water. We are often told that most of us don't drink enough water, and when we feel thirsty, it means we are already in the early stages of dehydration.
It's no wonder then, that water is a very prominent part of biblical teachings about life. Today's Scripture readings invite us to reflect upon three themes: water, thirst, and drinking from some-one else's well. In our First Reading, the ancient Hebrews were traveling through the desert and thirsted for water. Led by Moses, they were following the path laid out for them by God. They grumbled and complained about how hard the journey was.
Part II: Water
God saw that the Hebrews needed water, and rather than punish them for their complaining and stubbornness, he was generous and gave them water. (Exodus 17: 3-7) Let's consider a few points about water. People in the prediction business tell us that in the future, wars will be fought over water, just as past wars were fought over land and oil. The world's demand for clean fresh water is steadily increasing, while the available supply of clean fresh water is decreasing. To complicate matters, what businesses or governments do to a natural water source, like the upstream part of a river, can affect the quality of water for people living far downstream, possibly in a different state or country!
An example of this can be found right here in our own region, with the ongoing efforts to clean up the Housatonic River, which flows through western Massachusetts and Connecticut into Long Island Sound. This river was polluted with toxic PCB chemicals for over 40 years by the General Electric Company (1932-1977). What happened years ago to the river upstream in Massachusetts, still affects people in Connecticut today, especially in the areas of fishing and recreational use of the river.
Catholic social teaching says we are called to stewardship of God's creation. This means getting business, government, education, science, and technology leaders to take steps now, in order to ensure access to safe clean water for future generations. Parts of New England have also been experiencing mounting rainfall deficits over the past two years, resulting in drought conditions. Several cities and towns imposed limits on water usage over the summer and fall of 2016.
Part III: Thirst
In today's Gospel Reading, Jesus is also on a journey with his disciples. They were traveling from Judea to Galilee, a distance of about 75 miles. (John 4:3) The group arrives in a town called Sychar in a region called Samaria. Jesus, tired from the journey, and presumably thirsty, sits down by himself at the town's well. (John 4: 4-6) He sends his disciples into the town to buy supplies. (John 4:8)
While sitting at the well, Jesus waits to see who might stop by. (As the Son of God, he alreadyknows who will come by, and prepares to set up a "teaching moment".) When the person shows up, Jesus makes a request. He has a thirst. A Samaritan woman comes along with a jug to draw water with. He asks the woman for a drink. (John 4: 7)
The lesson Jesus has prepared is all about thirst, There are actually two kinds of thirst. They can be illustrated by the cross. One kind of thirst is horizontal thirst: a physical need for water to maintain good health. We all need water. The second kind of thirst is vertical: it's a need for more spiritual things like peace, meaning, and a sense of purpose for our lives.
Horizontal thirst can be quenched by our own efforts. We usually can find water either on our own, or by asking someone to give us some. Vertical thirst cannot be satisfied by our own individual efforts. Only God can satisfy vertical thirst. Vertical thirst is what draws us toward God and toward being in communion with him. It draws us into an intimate personal relationship with God. True peace and happiness in our lives are found only when vertical thirst is quenched!
The concept of vertical thirst explains why some people have more than enough money to live on, with success and pleasure galore, but still feel restless! Just look at all of today's celebrities with issues and multiple stints in "rehab". Vertical thirst cannot be satisfied by the things of this world.
Part IV: "Drinking from Someone else's Well"
As mentioned above, o get to their destination of Galilee, Jesus and his disciples had to pass through a region called "Samaria". Because of certain historical events that happened over a period of centuries, the people of Samaria came to hate and despise Jewish people. The Jewish people held similar attitudes toward the Samaritans. Today's Gospel Reading presents Jesus as a teacher and a role model who begins the process of taking the enmity which existed between Samaritans and Jews, and transforming it into friendship.
It was hot in the noon-day sun when Jesus sat down at the well. (John 4:6) He had no cup or jug or bucket. (John 4:11) That made him very vulnerable in a very hostile place! So along came the Samaritan woman, and Jesus asks her for a drink. (John 4:7)
For experienced Bible students who read this story, red flags go up and social taboos of the time are being broken by this scene! First of all, Samaritans and Jews were not supposed to talk to each other, touch each other, or share each other's things! The Samaritan woman acknowledges this taboo by saying, "How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?" (John 4:9) And secondly, men and women who were not married to each other were not supposed to be alone with each other! (This is a teaching of the Rabbis, found in the Talmud, based on Deuteronomy 13:7 and a rape incident in 2 Samuel 13 involving King David's son Ammon and his half-sister Tamar.)
Jesus and the Samaritan woman speak of shared human needs and their common thirst for such things as worship, salvation and truth. The enmity between Samaritan and Jew begins to break down. Step by step they reveal themselves more deeply to each other. They listen intently to each other and begin a dialogue. Despite knowing her marital history, Jesus does not call her a sinner! Nor does he instruct her to go and sin no more, as he has told others! He is conciliatory rather than judgmental.
The woman's understanding of Jesus progresses from recognizing Jesus as a Jew, to pondering whether he is greater than Jacob. (John 4:12) She begins to think this stranger might even be a prophet! (John 4:19) Then she begins to let go of her ingrained opinions about Jews. Finally, she concludes that Jesus is the expected Messiah, and goes off to share her excitement with the rest of her town. (John 4: 26-29) The new believers the woman created, in turn, overcame their own prejudices about the Jews and converted even more people to the new way of thinking!
As the waters of understanding wash away ignorance and fear, the gift of living water wells up within people of good will. Each such person becomes a kind of well from which others who thirst may drink. In today's First Reading, while the Hebrews were in the desert, God worked through Moses, instructing him to strike a rock with his staff, so water would flow for the people to drink. (Exodus 17:6) Jesus is the new Moses, and he wants each one of us to be like a staff in his hand to touch the stony hearts of the spiritually thirsting people around us, so they too can become well-springs of his grace, like the people who heard the Samaritan woman's story about Jesus, and became disciples in their own ways. (John 4 39-42)
Have a great week, and pray that you might become a spiritual well-spring this week that can satisfy the spiritual thirst of those around you!
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Church of the Nativity
"Christ and the Samaritan Woman"
Painting by Jacek Malczewski