3rd Sunday of Lent A (for the RCIA scrunities)
Readings: Exodus 17:1-7 Romans 5:1-14 John 4:5-42
“Is the Lord in our midst or not?” This question tested the Exodus generation in the wilderness and the Samaritan woman and her kinsfolk, and it continues to challenge the Christian community as it moves toward the renewal of its baptismal commitment at the Easter Vigil. We Christians thirst for the life-giving water of Jesus’ revelation while we live in the time between his saving death and resurrection and the completion of God’s kingdom.
The story of the water from the rock in Exodus 17 has been chosen for its relation to the Gospel selection from John in which Jesus proclaims to the Samaritan woman that he is “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The Israelites’ journey from Egypt through the wilderness is a time of danger and testing. They encounter numerous obstacles as they move from one camping place to another: bitter water, lack of food and water, and an attack from the fierce Amalekites. In most cases they are fearful and complaining, unprepared for the challenge of faith and nostalgically longing for a return to the security of Egypt. In this Sunday’s reading, they grumble against Moses and say, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock?” Their whole demeanor can be summed up in the words spoken at Massah and Meribah as they quarreled and tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” Yet the Lord consistently meets their grumbling with his provident care. In our selection, he gives instructions for Moses to use his staff to bring forth water from the rock “for the people to drink.”
In the reading from Romans, Paul exhorts the Roman Christians to joyfully live out the consequences of Christ’s saving death and resurrection. He uses several metaphors to express what Christ has done for them by dying and rising from the dead. He has “justified (them) by faith,” made them “at peace with God,” given them “access to grace.” But, although in one sense salvation has been achieved in Christ, Paul is also aware that it is not complete. Christ’s death has made salvation accessible, but the Christian community must endure in faith and hope until Christ’s return. The source of Christian hope in this time of suffering and testing is what God has already done for humanity through the death of Christ. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8).
In the unforgettable dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, John presents Jesus as the gift of God who offers “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” to a woman who is a sinner and outcast by the standards of contemporary Judaism. By the end of this long, but intricately interconnected episode, the woman has become an apostle whose testimony brings many Samaritans to belief in Jesus.
The dialogue uses John’s typical instruction pattern of irony and misunderstanding. Jesus is tired from his journey through Samaritan territory and sits down in the heat of the midday sun at Jacob’s well in Shechem. When he asks the Samaritan woman for a drink, she apparently refuses and points out the well-known antipathy between Jews and Samaritans. Jesus then challenges her to request the “living water” which he can give as God’s gift (salvation). Ironically, she thinks Jesus is referring to running spring water and points out that he has no bucket to draw water from the deep well and that he is surely not greater than the Samaritans’ ancestor, Jacob, who founded this well. Jesus then replies that the water he gives will overcome thirst and become “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The Christian reader understands this as a beautiful description of baptism, but when the woman still interprets his language on a natural level, Jesus offers her a sign of his supernatural knowledge of her sinful past: she has had five husbands and the man she is now living with is not her husband. This moves the woman to recognize Jesus as a prophet, and she proceeds to question him about whether the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim or the Jewish temple in Jerusalem is the proper locale for worship. Jesus responds by proclaiming that an hour is coming when authentic worship of the Father will not depend upon place, but will be done “in Spirit and truth” (a reference to the gift of God’s love through the Son). With this revelation, the woman realizes that God’s Messiah may be standing before her, and, with Jesus’ proclamation that “I am he” ringing in her ears, she leaves her now useless water jar and goes to invite the townspeople to see the man “who told me everything I have done.” By the end of the episode the Samaritan woman has become a full believer and witness to Christ. In fact, as the other Samaritans come to believe in Jesus on the basis of his own word, the Samaritan woman, like John the Baptist (3:22-30), rejoices greatly as she decreases and Jesus increases. Let us, like the Samaritan woman, take the challenge of today’s psalm response and turn to the life-giving water that is Christ: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Ps 95).