3rd Sunday of Lent
“Give me some of that water to drink so that I may never get thirsty and never have to come here again to draw water”. (John 4:15)
Those of us who live in the Northern hemisphere, with regular flooding and torrential rain, might be surprised to know that on a worldwide scale there is a catastrophic shortage of water. Climate change, pollution, poor agriculture and the growth in population have all contributed to a situation where 1.1 billion people lack access to water and 2.7 billion experience water shortage at least once a month. Damaged eco-systems mean wells running dry with resulting catastrophic results for irrigation and drought. All this whilst the ice caps melt in the polar regions and a small rise in the level of the ocean causes catastrophic flooding in places like Bangladesh.
Water is not merely a physical necessity for life. It has a powerful symbolic and metaphorical significance also. The early 20th century psychologist Carl Jung explored the whole realm of archetypes and our collective unconscious in his work on analytical psychology. He discovered that images of deep water, oceans, seas and lakes are universal symbols of the deep and primitive origins in the heart and mind of radically different societies in very different ages. Poetry, too, recognises the symbolic potency of water. W.H. Auden writes of this and other images in his essay “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” “Poetry is the water that allows our souls to ripen and grow”.
Although the words might be different in the Bible, the symbolic meaning of water is the same. In the Book of Genesis we read of powerful waters at the dawn of creation. (Genesis 1:1); and the devastating flood of Noah’s day are signs of purification and new life. (Genesis 6:17). The scene of the descent of Jesus into the waters of the Jordan to be baptised is surrounded by symbol as a reminder that the time has come when God’s promise is to be fulfilled in a unique and personal way. ”This is my Son, the Beloved, my favour rests on Him”. (Matthew 3:17. Mark 1:11.Luke 3:22) In the gospel passage assigned to the Third Sunday of Lent we hear the conversation between Jesus and the Woman at the well of Samaria. That conversation touches every level of the human condition – and the redeeming offered by Christ. No wonder the Church presents it as part of the ‘Scrutinies’ for those adults seeking Baptism at the Easter Vigil. All of us, like the woman at the well, are invited by Jesus to travel again the journey of our lives.
The time and place of the encounter were not promising. “It was the sixth hour” – Midday – the hottest time of the day. It was near Sychar, in Samaria, a place where no self respecting Jew was to be found. Samaria was a place of compromise, where a Jewish remnant had intermarried with their Assyrian conquerors following the invasions of 720 B.C. In doing so, they had foregone the right to call themselves Jews – at least according to those who remained faithful to the worship of God in the Temple on the mount of Jerusalem. The Samaritans had their own sacred mount also, mount Gerizim, which was later destroyed in the days of the Maccabees (129 B.C).
The opening of the conversation was unpromising also. “I am a Samaritan” she said. “You are a Jew. “How is it that you ask for a drink from me?” The social, cultural and religious barriers are all contained in that statement. She would have known it was unacceptable for a single, male Jewish man to engage in conversation with a woman alone. She would also be well aware of the low esteem in which Samaritans were held by practicing Jews. All contained in her incredulous question.
As in all human encounters with God, the start is superficial: “Give me some of that water so that I do not have to come to this place any more”. But Jesus, the reader of minds and hearts, leads her to a deeper encounter so that she may learn the truth about herself, her life, her faith and her fulfilment.
The living water is the thirst for God. She would have known the words of the prophet Isaiah “They shall not hunger or thirst”. (Isaiah 49:10) as well as the words of the Psalm “With you is the fountain of life” (Ps.36:9). Recognising the truth about herself and about her people “You are right to say you have no husband for, although you have had five, the one you have now is not your husband”; the woman is seen immediately as the representative of her people who have broken the bridal relationship of the covenant. They have married the foreign invader and compromised their religion. The time for healing and reconciliation has come. “The time will come when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem”. And then: “…those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth”.
The true worship of God takes place in the Temple of Christ’s body. It is his sacrifice which reconciles broken humanity to God and to itself. Worship in spirit and in truth is not something that lies outside ourselves, but within, when the life of each person is conformed to the life and love of Jesus himself. To know ourselves as God knows us and to know that we are received, accepted, forgiven and loved is the height and depth of self-knowledge and communion with God and each other.
ARCHBISHOP GEORGE STACK