Third Sunday of Lent
Barbara Quinn, RSCJ
Exodus 17: 3-7
Psalm 95: 1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Romans 5: 1-2, 5-8
John 4: 5-42
There they go again – those “loose women”! But this time that woman from Samaria is caught and exposed for her moral misdeeds. Five husbands – really!! How clever Jesus was. He innocently asked for a drink of water and then confronted the deception and the waywardness of this Samaritan woman. Isn’t that what we’ve often heard about this passage? And it fits with other pericopes about women in Scripture, too: Eve seducing Adam in the garden; Mary Magdalene and Bathsheba; the adulteress woman and the prostitute in the book of Hosea.
But wait…maybe there’s another “take” on this passage, another way of hearing the story. Scripture scholar Sandra Schneider, IHM, takes a closer and more discerning look at the episode of the Samaritan woman using current exegetical tools, an exercise that yields deeper and broader layers of the story (The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture, 1999). She notes that when a character is un-named as is the case with our woman, the figure serves as a type character in Scripture. While representing all Samaritan people, she stands for the Christian disciple/apostle par excellence. Her conversation with Jesus is far from focused on her sexual activity for it was highly implausible and incredible for a woman in her time and religious culture to have five husbands. Rather, her “five husbands” more likely represent the five false gods that some of the Samaritans’ neighbors brought back from their time in exile, false gods that the Samaritans began to worship along with the one true God. And so Jesus retorts, “You’re right, you have no husband,” that is, you are not worshipping the one true God.
And from there proceeds a conversation – a mutual dialogue – between Jesus and this woman that is unparalleled in John’s gospel in its theological intensity and depth. This woman – who would have thought! – draws out the true identity of Jesus: “You are a Prophet, like Moses,” she asserted. She recognized that Jesus was on a par with one of the great ancestors of the faith. There, gathering water at the well named after Jacob, that great ancestor of our faith, she asked another piercing question: “Are you greater than Jacob?” She began to understand that Jesus was the one in Whom true worship takes place: “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ; when he comes, he will tell us everything.” she hints. And Jesus answers, for the first time in John’s gospel, with one of his great “I am” statements that reveal who Jesus is as God: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
And then she leaves her water jar, as the apostles left their nets, and took the word to the whole town. “And many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of this woman’s testimony!” Amazing! This woman apostle and missionary is the one who led her people back to true worship, to belief in the one true God. Who would have thought!?
I wonder how difficult this may have been for Jesus’ disciples, those men who were the constant companions and helpers of Jesus. They witnessed that a major mission of gospel preaching was accomplished, not by them, but by this woman. Jesus must have intuited their struggle as he said, “One sows and another reaps. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work.”
In this story, we meet the Gospel at its best. It continually surprises us, uproots us, unsettles us, and calls us beyond our own imaginings. No wonder the Church draws on it for those preparing for full membership in the Church at the Easter Vigil. The ancient ritual of the scrutinies poses the gospel challenge to them…and to us, too. Yes, the scrutinies, celebrated during the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent, intend to uncover and heal what is weak and sinful in the hearts of the elect. But they are also intended to bring out and strengthen all that is upright and strong and good in those longing for full membership (RCIA, 141). Ultimately, the scrutinies are not about shining a light on the sinfulness of those preparing but rather on highlighting the overwhelming grace of God in Christ. As we, pilgrims on the way, step into the life of the Gospel, we gradually come to realize how much we need and desire God.
So it was for the woman at the well. Who would have thought that this woman would be an apostle and missionary par excellence? Who would believe that Jesus calls you – and me – to be apostles and missionaries, too? There are no bounds on those whom Jesus calls to partner with him, often counting among his friends some of the most unlikely characters! Far from demanding sterling credentials, Jesus asks only that we go in search of God and God’s Reign, that we enter into conversation with Jesus, and that when we hear, really hear, the Good News, we run to our people and proclaim the Good News by our lives. Will we?