THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT
March 15, 2020
Today’s text from John’s gospel is a long and rich feast. There is something for everyone. For those with a literary appetite, there is the fascinating irony in the narration of the story. Both the Samaritan woman and the disciples get stuck in a literal interpretation of what Jesus tells them about living water and about food. As the readers of the story, we experience a little spark of satisfaction from our collusion with the narrator: we are in on the meaning of what Jesus is saying, while the woman and the disciples, in contrast, take a bit longer to get it. There was a similar bit of Johannine irony in last Sunday’s story of the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus.
For those with a special taste for scripture, today’s story is full of allusions to the Hebrew Bible. There is the emphasis on water, which links us with today’s reading from Exodus. There is use of the phrase “living water,” which runs, dare I say, through the Wisdom literature as an image of God’s Wisdom who grants life. There is Jesus referring to himself with the phrase, “I AM”–the very description of self which God speaks to Moses from the burning bush on Mount Horeb. This is a further reiteration of John’s assertion at the very beginning of the Gospel, linking Jesus to the Yahweh God of Hebrew tradition.
For the connoisseur of theology, the story is chock full of christological images and language. The commentators point out that this story, and indeed the entire Gospel of John, is a long answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” The author of the fourth Gospel has written an extended meditation on the Gospel’s prologue, in which we are told that Jesus is The Word of God, from the beginning, before all else was made. This gospel, which we are immersed in throughout this season of Lent, is written from the viewpoint of Jesus as the Risen Christ. Unlike the three synoptic gospels, John’s gospel is not so much the story of the unfolding of the life of Jesus. Rather, it consists mostly of a series of scenes in which ordinary people wake up to the true nature of Jesus. John’s gospel is full of so-called “recognition” stories, in which strangers and friends alike awaken from their ignorance and see the truth of Jesus and of themselves. In that sense, today’s story is a special gift for those of us of the contemplative persuasion.
The theology lover gets an additional shot in the arm from all the escatological images and language. The Jesus who is in the present of the scene in today’s text is also the Jesus of the future: the glorified, risen Christ. And the author gives us some very thought provoking, paradoxical images of how the Reign of God, the Fulfillment, is right here now–the fields are ripe for harvesting. And, at the same time also the hour is coming, when all will be one. The time is both now and not yet. We are reminded to be here now and to be ready always.
So far, then, this story of the Samaritan woman at the well has given us four rather tasty courses in our spiritual feast: the literary, the scriptural, the theological, and the contemplative. As if all that were not enough, we also are given a savory dish that I want especially to emphasize today: the complex image of Jesus the Transgressor of arbitrary, encrusted, and mostly unjust societal boundaries, who is also Jesus the Transcender of those boundaries. This angle of view brings the story down into the lives of all of us. It calls us to the Christ-life in a particularly challenging way.
The unnamed Samaritan woman at the well is the first person in John’s gospel to whom Jesus fully reveals his true identity–at least his true identity as it is proclaimed by the writer of John’s gospel; that is, as the Annointed One, the Christ, the Word of God made flesh, the I AM of the burning bush…and for the woman, the source of the living water of the Spirit. To a first century audience in and around Palestine, this is an outrageous act. For a Jew at that time, it seriously risked ritual contamination. For any Jew to have contact with a Samaritan was unthinkable and religiously dangerous. It was direct contact with someone from outside of one’s religious tribe. While Jesus says nothing about this, the narrator puts it in the mouth of the woman, who asks in astonishment: How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?
In turn, this unthinkable act is further compounded by it being a private contact between a Jewish male teacher and a woman; something that would have been forbidden, again because of the risk of ritual contamination. It is the disciples who convey the message this time. The narrator tells us that They were astonished that he was speaking to a woman. We are told further that they say nothing about it, though the unasked questions–”What do you want?” and “Why are you speaking with her?” …these unasked questions make the disciples’ concerns even clearer.
Well, this may be a first century story, but all too obviously it applies to our own world, twenty centuries later. Anyone with eyes to see is aware of the persistence of tribalism and its often toxic effects, particularly in our own country and also throughout the world. It has become a cliche of public discourse to note how we are living in so-called siloes of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and identity, religion, education, class, political viewpoint, social media group, sports team…the list goes on and on. Now, having a tribe is not wholly bad. The mutual support and affirmation that derives from like being with like is crucial to survival in many ways, beginning with the necessity of the particular attachments that nurture us as children. In the ancient world, banishment from the community of the tribe was the ultimate punishment because it very likely meant death. Today we have arrangements of economic exchange that are proxies for the support that, in earlier times, could only be provided by our community, our in-group. BUT–and this is a big BUT–the in-group/out-group distinction eventually, and usually inevitably, leads to dehumanizing of the Other, to hatred, to war…well, the list goes on and on.
In today’s story and in countless stories throughout the gospels, Jesus gives us a radical alternative to this tribal perspective, both in the example of his life and in his teachings. In his unspoken actions, he transgresses his community’s taboos around tribal identity and gender. He just goes right into the Samaritan village and has a very intimate encounter with a woman of that “alien” village. He just does it. The narrator says nothing about Jesus having any concern or thought about this transgressive act. He just does it. No doubt he was aware of the taboos and that he knew what he was doing. We have to be aware of the differences, of the viewpoint of the Other who is not in our tribe. There are surface differences that have consequences, and we must be sensitive to them. At the same time, we must not be attached to those differences. In particular, we must not become attached to the stories that we concoct about those differences. They must not define us in any essential way. What is essential is that all of us are in Christ, and in Christ there are no differences. As Paul tells us in Colossians, your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And as we say here every Sunday, So all of us are one body….This is our really real life, whether we know it or not. We are called to be like the Samaritan woman. We are called in every moment to awaken from the dream of our attachment to the differences that we think divide us. We are called to awaken and recognize the boundlessness of our true life.