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At one time, after I left school, I worked in a garden centre. It was Summer and hot and at one point I was so thirsty that when I drank back the glass of water I swear it went straight over my lips, barely touching my tongue or my throat and went straight down into my belly. I had been working in the Sun for quite a while and I really, really needed that water. You know the feeling. One’s mouth and throat are so dry and all one can think about is that glass, that next drop, that will assuage the thirst. One can drown with only a cup’s worth of water in one’s lungs yet without water one will last only a few days. It can kill us but we need it to live.
It is such an ordinary request that our Lord makes of this woman: He asks for a drink, but as with everything that involves the Lord the obvious is not what is actually going on. On Good Friday, from the Cross, He will again declare His thirst but then as here He is referring not to an ordinary human thirst but His thirst for our communion with Him and through Him with His Father. Christ thirsts for our salvation and our eternal life with Him.
So our Lord reaches out to this woman with the simplest and plainest of requests. Just as it is today in the Holy Land such a request was a more complex issue back then. After the time of Kings David and Solomon the Jews were split into two kingdoms: one in the North and the other in the South and this lead to a tension between the two kingdoms. About five hundred years before Christ most of the Jews in the North had been conquered and deported to Syria and their places taken by Syrian, pagan colonists. Some of the Jews who remained behind intermarried with these pagans and adopted some of their customs becoming the Samaritans for their capital was Samaria. They still exist. The Jews in the South around Jerusalem considered them traitors and unclean and that still holds to this day! So when our Lord asks for water it is not just shocking that he asks it of a woman whom He does not know but that He asks it of a Samaritan, someone considered as an enemy by the Jews.
But what is this Samaritan woman doing there? Getting water obviously! But why she do so at noon? No one goes to fetch water at noon when it so hot. That work is done early in the morning. What is she doing here? The answer comes when our Lord tells her to fetch her husband and she partly admits her situation, a situation He already knows. Those who are cruel might call her names but this lady has certainly done the rounds and the women of Samaria have ostracized her. She comes at noon to the well for her water so as to avoid all the looks, the comments and the hostility she would otherwise have to endure. This woman is out on her own, outside a people who themselves are outsiders. So she is doubly an outcast for she is cast out of the people who were cast out by the Jews. Indeed more so since she has a history of broken relationships.
He initiates the conversation but she makes it about religion. He uses that to lead her to faith in Him. It is like watching a greyhound go after its prey. She weaves and dodges but she cannot escape Him. He will not give up the chase because He thirsts for her salvation.
Look at the path the debate takes: she starts by opposing Jew and Samaritan; then she asks Him directly does He think Himself greater than Jacob? When He brings her to admit her poor relationship decisions, she immediately shoots back that He thinks Himself a prophet! Then she ducks back to the Jew versus Samaritan question, where is the right place to worship Jerusalem or Samaria? All along He is not deflected but teaches her that He is the real source of the Living Water of the Holy Spirit and the true Well of Eternal Life. She has been searching for love but no human love can satisfy us like God’s love and that is what she has really been thirsting for. The waters of the world cannot assuage the real thirst in her heart nor can they wash away her sins or sooth her longing without His power and it is only through faith in Him that she can find satisfaction. He thirsts for her salvation and He is the only one who can assuage her thirst for love.
The whole conversation sends her fleeing to the city, forgetful of all the hostility within. “Could this be the Christ?” she asks because already she is coming to faith in Him and real faith makes us missionaries, makes us evangelists. She goes from being the public sinner and the outsider to an ostracized people to a herald of the Good News and a missionary to her fellow Samaritans. She who had no husband has found the Bridegroom of Israel and the Saviour of Man. She who thirsted for love has found the true love we all thirst for in Christ.
The returning disciples still do not understand. They have missed both His conversation with the woman and the truth that He offers. They still think in terms of this world and its priorities. He does not depend on earthly food. He thirsts for our salvation and finds nourishment, the satisfaction of His real hunger, in doing His Father’s will, in bringing others to faith in Him, and through Him to eternal life.
Lent we are told is a journey but it is also a conversation. Christ draws near to us in our prayer, in His word and in the Sacraments. He speaks to us, thirsting for our salvation and our communion with the Father through Him. We are the ones who raise difficulties, who duck and dive to avoid His call, but He will not give up. He wants us to become more and more aware of the true thirst that lies in the depth of our hearts so that, awakening our faith, we may begin to drink of Him and be satisfied. Nothing, however good or beautiful, can assuage our thirst the way Christ can. No one, no one can love us the way Christ can. To follow Christ and not to spend time close to Him, drinking of His love and mercy, is to live a half-life, a shallow life. Turn away from the other voices, the distractions, the hostile and judgmental world, come out to meet Christ at the well of your heart and give time to listening to Him in prayer. Christ is near us, is with us and in us and now is the time to especially attend to His Presence. Christ speaks to us and now is the time to listen. He sits by the well of our hearts and offers us the living water of His love for us. Why go thirsty?