Sunday of Week 3 of Lent (Year A)

Commentary on Exodus 17:3-7; Romans 5:1-2,5-8; John 4:5-42

On this third Sunday in Lent, we celebrate the Mass for the first of the three “Scrutinies”. The Scrutinies are special rites that help prepare the Elect (those participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) to enter the Catholic Church. Today’s readings from Year A may also be used in Years B and C when there are catechumens present who will be baptised at Easter.

The theme of today’s readings centres around  water, and the links to Baptism are clear. 

Water is the source of life, but also of destruction. We have the story of the Flood, which brought salvation to Noah and his family, but death to a sinful world; the crossing of the Red Sea, which meant life and liberty to the Israelites, but death to the army of the Pharaoh; and the water from the rock for the Israelites in the dryness desert.  We will hear more about these at the Easter Vigil during the blessing of the baptismal water.

The Gospel is about the Samaritan woman at the well, and it also centres around the theme of water and life.

Marginalised groups
The woman can be said to represent three oppressed groups of people with whom Jesus and the Gospel are interested:

  • women,
  • prostitutes and sexually immoral people generally,
  • all kinds of outsiders, people who are unclean, infidels, foreigners, etc.

The story begins by Jesus showing himself as a person in need: tired, hungry and thirsty.  We constantly have remind ourselves how genuinely human Jesus was, “like us in all things but sin”. He asks help from a person he was supposed to avoid (a strange woman on her own), and also to hate – a Samaritan.

She is very surprised at his approach, but her surprise allows Jesus to turn the tables and offer her “living water”.  She, understanding him literally, asks how he can give it as he has no bucket.  But the water that Jesus will give is different.  Those who drink it will never be thirsty again, and it gives eternal life.  Again, literally, the woman wants this water that lasts forever.  Then she will never have to trudge to the well again.

What is this water that Jesus speaks about?  It is God’s Spirit which comes to us in Baptism. The Sacrament of Baptism is not just a ritual producing magic effects.  It is the outward, symbolic sign of a deep reality, the coming of God as a force penetrating every aspect of a person’s life.

And this happens through our exposure to Jesus and the Gospel vision of life, and through our becoming totally converted to that vision.  This can only happen through the agency of a Christian community into which we are called to enter.  As the Second Reading says today, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit”.  It is not just a question of a ritual washing or immersing and saying magic words, but of a real drinking in of that Spirit.  The spirit quenches our thirst, not by removing our desire for God’s presence, but by continually satisfying it.

Five husbands plus
Jesus invites the woman to come back to the well once more with her husband.  Jesus’ mission to these people begins with reaching out to a family.  But she says she has no husband.  Indeed, as Jesus reveals her true situation: she has had five husbands and the man she is with now is not her husband.  She is a “loose” woman who must have been deeply despised by people around her.  No wonder she came to the well alone!

The water that Jesus promises is closely linked to conversion and forgiveness of sin.  Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  But the sin must first be exposed and acknowledged.  And Jesus’ goal is not just the woman’s sin, but that of everyone in the whole town from which she comes.  Sinner that she is, she will become the agent of her neighbors’ salvation and conversion.

Changing the subject
The woman is staggered at Jesus’ insight into her life.  She is embarrassed, and so there is a sudden change of topic to something theoretical and “safe”. How often do we do that? 

The question the woman asks is about Jewish and Samaritan places of worship: Jerusalem, holy to the Jews, or Mount Gerizim, holy to the Samaritans, or the well of Jacob where they are.  But it gives Jesus the opportunity to make another important point.  The “holy” well where they are will become irrelevant – so will the Temple of Jerusalem and the mountain of the Samaritans.  True worship will be done “in Spirit and in truth”.  There will be no more temples.  It is not places which are holy, but the people who use them.  It is we who are the Temple of God and the dwelling place of Christ.

The woman goes on to say that she knows when the Messiah comes, he will tell all about this.  At that point, Jesus tells her that he is the Messiah.  How extraordinary!  It is a religious outsider, and a multiple adulterer, who is the first in John’s Gospel to hear this revelation!  And, this is precisely because it is people like her who need to hear it.  People who are healthy do not need the doctor, only the sick.

Just then the disciples return.  As men of their time and culture, they are amazed to see Jesus talking alone to this woman, this despised outsider.  They don’t know what to say.  They offer Jesus food, but they are told he has food they know nothing about. 

Not on bread alone does man live, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Jesus’ food is his total identification with the will of his Father and doing his work. 

Happy are those who hear the word of God and keep it.

Linked with the idea of bread and feeding, Jesus tells them that the harvest is great and it is ripe. And the harvest now includes Samaritans (including this woman) and all outsiders, aliens, unbelievers, sinners…  It is a harvest that has been prepared by others.

‘Stay with us’
Many Samaritans came to believe in Jesus because of the woman’s witnessing.  They asked him to stay with them, because otherwise he would have continued on his journey.  Jesus often needs to be invited to stay.  Remember the two men walking to Emmaus?  He would not have stopped if they had not invited him to stay the night.  He stands at the door and knocks, but he will not come in unless invited.

As a result, many in that Samaritan village came to believe in Jesus.  And they said:

It is no longer because of what you [the woman] said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the World.

For catechumens, and for all of us, the faith that has been handed on must become our own faith.  So that, even if everyone around us were to abandon Jesus, I would not.  Ultimately faith is totally personal. 

I live, no not I, but Christ lives in me.

Let us pray today that all those preparing to be baptised at Easter may find that life-enriching faith for their lives.

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