Christ and the Woman of Samaria, Rembrandt and student, c. 1655 (Met. Museum of Art, New York)
(The text of today’s Gospel, John 4:5–26, 39–42, can be found online).
The disciples were no doubt asking why they were in Samaria. Geographically Samaria is between Galilee to the north and Judea (Jerusalem) to the south. Obviously, it was easier to travel directly through it to get from Galilee to Judea but the Judeans (Jews of Judea and Galilee) and the Samaritans hated each other so much that it was a dangerous journey. This was a consequence of a centuries-old Assyrian colonization plan. After the death of King Solomon, the Kingdom of David split into the Kingdom of Israel in the North and Judea to the South. The Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC. Their policy was to replace a significant percentage of native people with immigrants from other nations. They would intermarry and be more dependent on Assyria than the memory of what was there before. These foreigners adopted many Israelite customs but were never accepted by the Judeans (Jews) and there was always conflict between them. Although their religious practices were quite similar, the major issue was where sacrifice was to occur: for the Samaritans: Mt Gerizim; for the Jews: Mt Zion. To inflame things even further, the Jewish King John Hyrcanus destroyed the Samaritan temple in 129B C. So now the disciples find themselves in enemy territory in the heat of the day with no food.
They were outcasts, but not alone. Jesus finds another. The woman who comes to the well is alone. This was very unusual. Common tasks were done by groups of woman both for company and safety. She prefers to come alone. We are told that she had five husbands which was likely to make her unpopular with the other women so she must come at the hottest time of the day when no one would be around. The last thing she wants to see is a Judean who demands water from her. She indeed calls him a Jew and asks how he had the nerve to ask her an unaccompanied Samaritan woman for anything. Jesus is unperturbed and tells her that he has come to offer her “living water.” Remember they are at a well which is not quite fresh water, living water usually meant running or stream water. Much more potable. She is intrigued and now calls him “Sir.” Jesus begins to engage her more seriously. Now of course this is for her own physical self-interest. But few of us can cast stones. Are we primarily interested in worshipping Jesus or in getting what we want from him? For us not living water of any sort, but meaning or a moral code. He is beginning a relationship with her and she experiences that he is more than meets the eye or ear.
She next calls him a prophet most immediately, because he told her that she had five husbands but seeks more. She brings up the sore point of worship: should it be in Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem. This was the most obvious and sensible indeed contemporary question to ask. If Jesus were to merely answer this question, he would become involved with the politics of the day and not show the woman the truly new life he can offer. It is the same with us. If the principal aim of our faith is to engage in contemporary political and religious issues, we will never go further into Jesus’ life. Worship in spirit and truth is connecting with Jesus. As he has said: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn. 14:6).
She begins to truly understand and raises the figure of the Messiah. She is rewarded by Jesus acknowledging that he is the Messiah the Christ.
The next section is very human. We have seen that she is an outsider. Yet she returns to her town and tells them all about Jesus. It must have taken great courage, but she loves Jesus and nothing increases courage more than love. She must have been very convincing as the people came out of the village to see Jesus. They then invited him – a Jew – to stay with them and they were converted.
There are several interesting elements here. Like all of us, they needed to believe on their own. We learn about God from our parents, grandparents, wider family, and community. That is wholesome and wonderful, but there must come a day when we make that faith our own. No one can believe for you.
Part of that belief is that there are no human boundaries that Jesus must accept. He started a relationship with a Samaritan woman and eventually so inspired a Samaritan village that they recognized that he was not a figure for only Judeans and Samaritans but was the “savior of the world”. What an extraordinary journey but perhaps better journeys.
There was the journey of the woman’s understanding from a rather deficient Judaism to an understanding of the nature of realty and worship in “Spirit and Truth”. Jesus is the greatest guide of all.
There is the journey of Jesus into their community, Notice that it was only when Jesus had stayed with them two days that they knew who he truly was. That is the same with us. The difference in knowing about Jesus and truly knowing him is spending time not only with him in prayer but spending time with him in his body, the Church,
But there is also the journey of the woman back to her village, her community. At the beginning of the story she and Jesus are at the well and both of them were isolated from her people. At the end, they are at its heart. Her way back to community was though Jesus. He offers the same to us. We do not know Jesus alone we know him in and through his people, in and through the Church.
The entrance to this is through our common worship in the Eucharist. Through the Spirit, we truly participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The present coronavirus pandemic will separate many of us from this worship and the community it forms. We will need to challenge ourselves to find ways of connection and belonging during this time. We need everyone to think about how to accomplish this. We can believe in the fullness of the truth of Jesus only when we belong fully to the people of Jesus.
By last Monday, it was apparent that much in New York would close because of the coronavirus. I recognized that this might be the last time I had to visit a museum for quite some time. I was doing my preparation reading for today’s homily on the “Woman at the Well” and remembered that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had a beautiful painting by Rembrandt on this topic. I have loved this painting since I was a teenager and thought I would go off the Met and see it. It was not in its usual spot and I was told it was in the Lehman Wing in a special exhibit on Dutch painting but it was not hung. I was very disappointed, there is no substitute for the in person experience of an artistic masterpiece. Yet even the reproduction above can give us an idea of its power. Look at the woman’s face, it is contorted with anger and hate. Perhaps also she felt that here was another “religious” man who would condemn her. Jesus on the other hand is peaceful and contented. He is not there to condemn her or her people. The preface for today’s Mass says so perceptively:
When He asked the woman of Samaria for water to drink,
Christ had already prepared for her the gift of faith.
In His thirst to receive her faith
He awakened in her heart the fire of Your love.
As Pope Francis reminds us so beautifully and so often we are not here to condemn anyone but to accompany everyone.
There is another painting in the Lehman Wing which was on display last week that I never fail to visit. “Paradise” by the Sienese painter Giovanni di Paolo is personal favorite. I have a great weakness for the art of Siena. Rather than perspective like the great art of its neighboring city of Florence, Sienese artists emphasized the relationships among the people in the painting.
We may assume that all the people in the painting were saints, but they were from vastly different places geographically and socially. They may never have met in life and very well may not have liked each other if they did. Yet here they are showing us what Paradise is. No one is on a cloud with a harp, but everyone is embracing in love and eternal friendship.
The fullness of Paradise is in heaven, but it is in that same love and friendship that Jesus showed the woman at the well that Paradise may be glimpsed here and now.
(An interesting article on this painting may be found in the Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-celebration-not-of-this-earth-11582913018)