The Woman of Samaria

The Woman of Samaria

This reflection is by Brother Thomas Casey OP, who is responsible for the magnificent gardens at the Dominican Retreat House, Montenotte, Cork. For more photographs of the gardens see here

I put this piece together watching the women in Tanzania drawing water from the well. The water vessel is always filled to the brim. The woman tilts it so that a cupful spills onto the ground in thanks. She then lifts it on to her hip, then to her shoulder, and finally onto her head. Once balanced she sets off gracefully to her village.

Drawing water in Tanzania as in most of Africa is a woman’s task. Though difficult, it is one of the more pleasant chores. It is a social occasion. The women set out together for the well around 4 o’clock when the heat is out of the sun. There they exchange greetings and have their little chat. As for the men, they are never seen near a well.

It must have been the same custom at the time of Jesus. The gospel says that Jesus sat by the well alone and tired. Strange too that a woman should draw water on her own in the heat of the midday sun. Having had five husbands was a source of scandal in a small community. Going to the well alone may have been her one opportunity for space, and then to discover a man who was a total stranger there ahead of her.

When he asks for a drink, she is startled. One question leads to another. He seems to be talking in parables. One minute he is thirsty – the next he is offering living water that will never make you thirsty again – very puzzling, to say the least. Suddenly the puzzles give way to the clear light of day, when the man points out that she had five husbands and the one living with her now is not her husband.

Now the real conversation is only beginning. The woman feels accepted and now it is her turn to ask questions. She is drawn to explore all about religion, about where one should worship, and about a messiah who will come. Jesus tells her that he is the Messiah: ‘I am he – the one who is speaking to you’. It is the answer to the question that is on everybody’s lips, yet it is to this foreign woman that he makes this remarkable disclosure.

The lady of Samaria had a burden heavier than water jars to carry. Lord, you felt she would accept real love, and you were right. The disciples on their return could sense the intimacy of the moment and are surprised that he is talking to a woman.

Jesus tells her that in future God is to be worshipped ‘neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem’. Rather those who worship God must worship ‘in Spirit and in Truth’. We may envy the woman meeting Jesus face to face. But wherever there is trust, acceptance and intimacy there is sacredness. Put more simply, wherever there is love there is God.

Robert Gay OP

Fr Robert Gay is Prior of the Priory of the Holy Spirit, Oxford, and he is also a lector in moral theology at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.