Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there. Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:5-10)
Thus begins an ultimately comforting chapter of John; but when Jesus travels to Samaria in John 4, he is on uncomfortable terrain. After all, the Samaritans and Jews, though intimately and from ancient times related, were long at odds with one another. It would have not been unusual for a Jew to avoid Samaritan territory, and Samaritans to keep their distance from Jewish towns. They are unwelcome, impure to one another.
But he is there, and irresistibly he gets involved. He is thirsty, for a time alone; he has no bucket, and so he asks a stranger for a drink of water: a Samaritan, a woman, a woman who was married and divorced many times over. She is the one who feels instinctively that this contact is socially unapproved; she is inclined to keep her distance. But by the very fact of the conversation, by his invitation to her – come, drink the water of everlasting life – and by his intuition about her life, Jesus becomes deeply a part of her life, the person who tells her everything about herself, yet in a life-giving way.
The result, of course, is equally remarkable, as she, like Andrew and Philip in John 1, becomes one of the first to spread the news of Jesus to her people. Her word is strikingly effective:
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. (39-40)
Not only does he pass through impure territory, not only does he talk to this unnamed woman; he even enters the village, he eats and drinks there, and he stays there for several days - longer than almost anywhere else in the Gospels. These Samaritans recognize him in the way most of us do not:
And many more believed because of his word.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.” (41-42)
Now all of this is wonderful, and draws our Lenten observance to a new level. We, after all, are the woman; we are the villagers with whom Jesus dwells for a time; and we are the clueless disciples. We live in a world where divisions are rife, and where we, like the kindred Jews and Samaritans, find reasons to stand divided even from other Catholics. Not even religious differences, even true and important ones, should any longer made into automatic excuses for division:
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (21-24)
Lent is the time when this Jesus walks into our lives, and takes us seriously, and ends up telling us who we are. Barriers fall, walls are broken through, and we begin to live, in Spirit, in Truth.
But this is a little more to say. Ours is a time of the great pandemic. Jesus is the one who asks us, right now, not to live in isolation, seeking to be immune to one another. (Immune: "protected or exempt, especially from an obligation or the effects of something.") To be sure, the example of Jesus ought not encourage us to be casual during our medical pandemic, risking ourselves and others. But there is also the spiritual pandemic of suspicion, fear, isolation, exclusion, which began before and will last after the coronavirus is behind us. Jesus is reminding us of the need to stay in touch, sharing what we need to eat and drink, dwelling together. We too need to refuse to let temporary physical barriers and fears make us cold strangers to one another.
Right now, this March of 2020, our Lenten season, is the time when he shows up in our lives and shows to us the very depths of God:
The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am — the one who is speaking to you.” (25-26)
Precisely because we are in a time of medical and spiritual pandemic we — like the woman, like the villagers, like Jesus — need to move freely, freed in the Spirit, recognizing the truth that wherever we are, whatever our situation, God is right there, touching us.
(Based on a Sunday homily planned but never given, due to the suspension of Masses in the Archdiocese of Boston; March 15, 2020)