This Sunday appears to be unprecedented in the churches of the Archdiocese of Chicago and elsewhere, for there are no public masses, a painful but necessary gesture of care for the health and well-being of those who could be susceptible to infection by the mysterious and frightening new coronavirus. Its relentless spread has led to a number of unprecedented shifts in our lives, some more remarkable than others.
Two days ago, I stopped in a local supermarket to pick up a few perishable items for the days ahead. I was startled to find desperate shoppers overloading their carts with bottled water, bathroom tissue, and breakfast cereals. I was more startled to see rows of empty shelves. (Hint: it would be a lot less expensive and far better for the environment to invest in a home water-purification set such as ZeroWater, which removes lead, other metals, and particulates from ordinary tap water. Bottled water is vastly more expensive in the long run and the empty plastic bottles extremely costly to the environment. And, after all, much of it is just tap water anyway.)
By a curious, not to say divine, coincidence, today’s readings from the liturgy focus on the gift of water. The first reading recalls an episode from the accounts of the long desert pilgrimage
of the Hebrews as they wandered from Egypt to the promised land of Canaan. Famished, nearly crazed with thirst, they are on the point of rebellion when Moses calls on God’s help. Told to strike the nearby rock-face with his staff, Moses unleashes a torrent of water. The Hebrews were not only frequently inclined to doubt God’s promises, but were sometimes rocked by strife and discord, which is why Meribah and Massah are used to name the place “the Waters of Contention and Testing.” And yet God takes pity on them and produces water from solid rock.
The connection with today’s theme in the second reading is not hard to see, but Paul spells it out for us. As with the desperate Hebrews, “…God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” Hope, he writes, “does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” The word Paul uses here, ‘ekxéo’ in Greek, literally means to pour out, and specifically water or blood. Paul’s letter to the Romans takes up that theme again, and refers to the Holy Spirit in much the same terms that Jesus uses in the gospel of John, as flowing into us like a river of love. This is the living water that becomes a spring within a person for a thirst that can never be fully quenched, the thirst for the living God.
This brings us to the fascinating encounter between Jesus and the nameless woman of Samaria in the third reading, one of the longest sequences in John’s gospel. It takes the form of a drama in which Jesus, tired from traveling with his disciples through what was in fact hostile territory, stops at the famous Well of Jacob. While his companions are off hoping to find something to eat, Jesus involves himself in a friendly, even humorous, exchange with a local woman from “Sychar” – probably Shechem, the major city of the Samaritans, which could have supported a population large enough for the kind of goings-on the lady was involved in. She has come with her bucket to draw water.
Jesus asks her for a drink, an unthinkable request for a respectable Jew, especially in Samaria. The Samaritans had violently resisted the rebuilding of the Temple after the exile and had even sided with the Seleucid Greeks during the great oppression of the Jews a hundred and fifty years earlier. Their mutual hatred was fierce and enduring. Jesus himself had received inhospitable treatment from a Samaritan village on a previous occasion, and one of the deadliest insults his own people threw at him was calling him a Samaritan.
The climax of the scene comes when after some clever bantering, the woman finally challenges Jesus by referring to the ancient promises of a Savior. She was no religious simpleton. And Jesus’ response is astonishingly brief and unparalleled even in John’s gospel: “I am he, who is speaking to you” [John 4:26]. ‘Ego eimi’…
It is worth noticing how shocked Jesus’ disciples were on their return, not only that he was talking with a Samaritan, but a lone woman of dubious reputation in a public place. Worse still, he was asking her for a drink of water. In both respects, he had violated the limits of respectable behavior, but had also incurred ritual impurity. Somehow, that didn’t matter at all. In fact, the selection of a Samaritan, especially a woman of questionable reputation, to be Jesus’ contact and then his herald becomes a critical moment in John’s gospel. She is a model believer, in fact. She hears the word of God, believes it, then brings it to others, just as Mary Magdalene would do after the Resurrection. And in this case, the other Samaritans believed her and kept Jesus there teaching for two days.
The conversation moves from water and drinking to food. The disciples appear to have been able to buy something and have brought it to share with Jesus. He seizes the moment to make a number of pointed remarks about evangelization – preaching the good news which is far more urgent than supplying food and drink. Another theme thus emerges from the watery surface of today’s readings, a pointer toward what today we call the ministry of reconciliation: overcoming barriers of race, creed, gender, and whatever divides people against each another, whether nationally or internationally or just within our families. Jesus is inviting us to strike the stone surface of our hearts so that they will soften and flow with compassion and love for all human beings, especially the despised, the outcast, and above all, our enemies.
Shechem, by the way, was almost totally destroyed by the Romans in the year 67, including at least most of what was probably a growing Christian community, one that perhaps grew from the encounter in this story. But the way of Christ remains the way of peace, of love, of forgiveness and reconciliation. So may God’s Spirit pour love into our hearts and through them, that we may become peace-makers, not war-makers, that we may turn from violence to justice, from oppression to assistance, from suspicion and hatred to trust and love, and even from hoarding to sharing. It’s all foolish, of course, and probably leads toward trouble. It led Jesus to the cross. And the funny thing is, he expects us to follow him there.