Thirsting for the Old, Thirsting for the New
Third Sunday of Lent (A) | Fr Colin Carr contemplates the drama of the God who thirsts for our faith, and who comes seeking us.
When the Israelites moaned at Moses about the lack of water, it was already the third time they’d complained and they’d only just started out on their journey to the promised land: they complained about being pursued by the Egyptians’ chariots, with no visible means of escape; they wished they’d never left Egypt and told Moses they’d never wanted to leave in the first place. Then they complained about the lack of food and longed for “the fleshpots of Egypt” – that’s when the term is first used; and now they’re complaining about the lack of water and once again longing for a return to Egypt. And it’s with these moaners that God is about to make Covenant at Sinai, giving them the Ten Commandments, the law of free people. We Dominicans, along with all those who celebrate the Prayer of the Church, sing today’s responsorial psalm every morning, reminding ourselves not to be fighting with God as we start a new day.
And the start of a new day is what the Samaritan woman experienced in the wearisome middle of what felt like just another day.
Unlike the unwillingly liberated slaves who gave Moses such a hard time, she was ready for what was new; we might say that with a cynical chuckle in reference to her rather dramatic love-life, as though she alone were to blame for the fact that she had had five husbands and was now on her sixth man. Jesus doesn’t say who is to blame; it is we who import the blame into the story. For all we know she might have been very unlucky in her choice of men. But Jesus is not interested in blaming; rather, he is offering a new life, a new source of satisfaction; in the interlude to this story, when he is talking with his disciples, he also speaks of the Samaritans positively as the field that is ripe for harvest, and speaks of the food which is his source of satisfaction – doing the will of the One who sent him and completing his work, which is to arouse faith. John’s gospel is all about the drama of people’s willingness or unwillingness to come to faith in Christ.
The gift that Jesus is offering is so new that the woman takes time to understand what he means by fresh water; at first she thinks of it in terms of an improved supply of what she has come to the well for. People who have not been taught about Christ may well be attracted to him at first as an improved version of humanity, on a par, say, with Gandhi. But that is not yet true faith in God’s Son. The woman moves forward in her search when she discovers that this man knows about her former life but doesn’t allow that knowledge to distract him from his offer of living water. Nor does he brush aside what might be seen as a distracting discussion about where God should be worshipped. He uses it to teach the woman more about the God she is searching for, including the fact that this God is searching for her to be a worshipper in spirit and in truth. The human search encounters God’s search for humanity, the initiative of the redeeming creator whose Son died for us while we were still sinners. It is an amazing paradox that the God who is the source of living water is thirsty for our faith.
When Jesus says quite plainly of the expected Messiah “I am”, the woman doesn’t immediately make a profession of faith: she does two things: she leaves her water-pot, and she goes back to the city to call people to meet this extraordinary man. We should read more into the leaving of the water-pot than just a practical move. She has encountered something – someone – who is offering a whole new way of life which gives her other priorities; she’s in a hurry to let other people know about this possible Messiah.
“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done” she says to the people of the city. And some people believe in him straight away, while many others come to believe in him as they encounter him during his stay with them – surely an extraordinary event as Jews and Samaritans simply didn’t mix. The searching God has no pride….
….nor should those who make him known: the crowning glory for this thirsting woman comes in the form of what sounds almost like an insult: “It’s not because of what you said that we believe: we’ve met the man himself and realise he’s the Saviour of the world.” Her searching had satisfied God’s searching.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a painting by Benedetto Luti in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.