THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT (2020)
Psalms 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Romans 5:1-2, 5-8
Our lectionary cycle is Year A, and it gives us the great pleasure of being treated to some of the evangelist John’s premiere gospel stories. They are often noted by the faithful as being “too long,” and some Churches, for expediency’s sake, will sadly choose the shorter versions available in the lectionary, missing much of the drama and wonder of John’s carefully crafted accounts. Should that be your misfortune, treat yourself to the entire gospel passage, so that you might recognize the beauty of what are truly inspired stories.
This Sunday’s gospel is about a simple Samaritan woman at a well, where she had come to draw water in the heat of the day (“noon,” the gospel tells us. Although she is nameless in our story, Greek Christians call the woman in today’s Gospel St. Photine; Russian Christians call her St. Svetlana. Both names mean “bearer of light.” Several stories of her life exist. One well-known account makes her a founder of the church in North Africa and a martyr under Nero. She reputedly spat in his face when he subjected her to grisly tortures and demanded that she sacrifice to idols. History preserves no evidence to corroborate these traditions, but they highlight a facet of today’s Gospel that many often miss: this Samaritan woman was one of Christ’s unlikely first evangelists.
The woman could not have expected to encounter Jesus at the well, and she was even more surprised when the Jewish man asked her for a drink, for as the gospel tells us, “Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.” The patriarchal foundation of Jewish life, represented by the disciples later in the gospel story, would find it amazing that Jesus would be speaking with a woman, let alone a Samaritan. The disciples, like the Samaritan woman herself, “were amazed that Jesus was talking with a woman,” yet His simple request for a drink leads the woman into an encounter she will never forget.
Jesus surely instilled the curiosity that would lead to faith when He responds to the woman, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, “Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him [for a drink] and he would have given you living water.” Jesus was no doubt thirsty from His journey, but His real thirst is for the soul of this Samaritan woman, who Jesus nudges closer and closer to what we would call faith. At first she wants the living water because it will make her life easier: “[I] won’t have to keep coming here to draw water.” Soon she will realize that their discussion is really not about the water at the bottom of the well.
It would be easy to be distracted by the discussion of the “five husbands,” but Jesus’ intention was not to shame the woman, but to let her know that He knew her better than she knew herself. Indeed, His insight led her to the conclusion that Jesus was a “prophet,” but she would soon see that she is conversing with someone who is more than a prophet. Where anyone worships – Samaritans on the mountain, Jews in Jerusalem – is of no consequence, for all that God wants is people who worship God “in Spirit and in truth.” Jesus could see in this woman someone who is capable of moving beyond the label of “Samaritan,” someone who was capable of worshipping God “in Spirit and truth.” Jesus leads the woman to speak about the Messiah and entrusts her with the truth, that He is that Messiah.
Jesus has given the Samaritan woman insights that cause her to look at the world in a different way, and she now takes on the role of an evangelist, returning to her town and telling her neighbors and friends that they have to come and see the man who “could possibly be the Christ/Messiah.” The townspeople no longer just believe because of what the woman tells them, for they come to recognize on their own “that this is truly the savior of the world.”
As St. Paul implies in our second reading, Jesus sees more in us than we often see in ourselves. Like He did with the Samaritan woman, He looks beyond our ordinary exteriors and past our faults and failings to see something of worth, something that can be a cause for good. Paul reminds us that “Christ, while we were still helpless, died at the appointed time for the ungodly….God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Our privileged encounters with Christ are meant to make us evangelists, “bearers of light” to others. With the urgency of the Samaritan woman who “left her water jar behind and went into the town,” we too should be eager to tell people of the Lord who knows us better than we know ourselves, a Lord who is truly the compassionate Savior of the world.