Dear Sisters and Brothers,
A thirst could be physical or spiritual. Often it is both, as in the case of the unnamed woman whose meeting with Jesus by Jacob’s well gave us today’s gospel story. Physically she is thirsty, thirsting for water, and that brings her to the well day after day. But spiritually also she is thirsty, an inner thirst which drives her from one man to another and for which she can find no satisfaction. By the time she meets Jesus she is in her sixth marriage, and yet she is able to tell Jesus “I have no husband,” indicating that she is probably already looking for the seventh.
Numbers are often significant in biblical interpretation. According to the biblical symbolism of numbers, six is a number of imperfections, of lack, of deficiency. The woman in her sixth marriage is, therefore, in a situation of lack and deficiency. Seven, on the other hand, is a number of perfections, completion, finality, and sufficiency. Jesus comes to this woman as the seventh man in her life. She opens up to him and finally experiences the satisfaction of all of her soul’s desiring, the full assuaging of her spiritual thirst. Isn’t this the kind of experience we wish for ourselves and for all in this season of Lent? It might, therefore, be useful for us to look at the mechanism of this profound turnaround in life that we call conversion.
First, someone must be ready to break boundaries. Human society organizes itself by erecting boundaries – national, ethnic, religious, and gender. Jesus shows in today’s gospel that in order to reach out to the other and create the necessary conditions for conversion, one must be prepared to challenge these man-made boundaries and break the dividing walls of prejudice. This is exactly what Jesus does to get to this woman.
According to the convention of the times, Jews were not supposed to interact with Samaritans. Walls of prejudice built on the foundations of ethnicity and religion kept them apart. Jesus broke these boundaries when he asked the woman for a drink, as her reaction shows: “How is it that you, a Jewish man, ask a drink of me, a Samaritan woman?” Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9).
That was not all. It was also against the moral norms of the day for a man to engage a woman in dialogue in a public place. And yet Jesus engages this woman in the longest dialogue we have in all the four Gospels, an act which even his own disciples saw as morally questionable:
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?” (John 4:27). If Jesus had kept within the bounds of the expected behavior of his day, there was no way he could have gone beyond a superficial brush with the woman, which would invariably lead to superficial results. Note also that, unlike many evangelists of our time, Jesus never tries to condemn, threaten, or intimidate the woman. All he tries to do is invite (v. 7), challenge (v. 10) and affirm her (v. 17), patiently trying to enlighten her doubts in no uncertain terms (vv. 24, 26).
Why does Jesus make such a tremendous impact on the woman? Because for the first time in her life she meets a man who really understands her. In her excitement, she forgets her water jar and physical thirst and runs back to the village inviting the villagers to come and see “a man who told me everything I have ever done” – probably the first man to know her so well without rejecting her. Before you know it the convert has become a missionary bringing others to Jesus and to the joyful experience of conversion.
Before we close our reflection on the gospel story I would like us to pay attention to the words of those other Samaritan villagers that the woman brings to Jesus.
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.” (4:42) (It is a journey parallel to the journey taken by those in the RCIA as they seek to know more and more about Jesus on their way to entering the Church at Easter). We see that there are two stages in the believing or conversion process: a. believing because of what someone told us about Jesus, and b. believing because we have come personally to know Jesus ourselves. Lent is the period when the Church invites all her children who still believe on the strength of someone else’s witnessing to come to Jesus personally and believe, not because someone told us, but because we have known him and experienced his love personally in our own lives.
Peace and all good!
Fr. Valery Burusu