I gave the following as a reflection on the story of the Woman at the Well in John chapter 4 for a Compline of sorts, The Via Media, that my parish, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, performs Sunday evenings. It’s long, so you don’t have to read it.
“Among the many beauties and depths in the Gospel of John are the numerous and closely narrated encounters of various people and Jesus. More often than not these encounters proceed as a series of misunderstandings and frustrations. Jesus’s words and answers are frustrating and complex and their meanings are often obscure. It is, I suppose, to be expected that this is so. John’s Gospel more than the other three is quite explicit from the beginning about the full identity of Jesus, but this identity is never readily apparent to those who come to know him, it takes time and patience for this identity to unfold. Indeed, the narrator of the Gospel often “intrudes” into the narrative to tell the hearers what exactly Jesus meant, a meaning that apparently had come from many long years of thought. According to Tradition, St. John was the only of the 11 disciples not to die a martyr’s death. He passed his many years near Ephesus and gathered a community around him, one which displays a unique perspective among the NT books and one we could not do without.
Often in contemporary discussions of this text, the social status of the Samaritan woman at the well is the primary focus of commentary. It is argued that we, like Jesus, ought not to judge people according to race, gender and sexual history. This is absolutely the case and is one of the strongest messages of this particular passage, but for this reflection I’d like instead to imagine ourselves not as Jesus, but, perhaps more traditionally, as the woman herself. Because this story illustrates some of the complexities of what happens to us when we pray, when we bump into Jesus ourselves.
As the scene opens, we see Jesus already in place and the woman does not know what is about to occur. Not only is Jesus already there, but he is the first to address her. Even when we are unprepared for the Lord to speak, or even when we are coming purposely to pray, Jesus already stands prepared and addresses us first. The opening tells us that it is about noon and this is a telling little bit of information. It is very uncommon to do the hardest labor, such as water collecting, at the height of the day. We know too that Jacobs Well lies outside of town but there was a water source inside Sychar. Presumably, the woman is of ill repute among the town, or at least the other women with whom she would be drawing water. It is for this reason that she goes outside of town at an inconvenient time to draw water, to escape the scorn and judgment of others. When we come to God, there is no need, in fact it is completely impossible, to hide who we are. We may feel ashamed, or awkward, like we don’t belong or know what to do, but as we will see, in prayer we come to know that more important than all of that is the sheer delight of being known by the Lord.
The surprising thing is that the Lord’s first word is itself a request, a request that we offer to him what we have. Jesus did not ask for anything extravagant, not even for anything that she did not already have. As we are soon to find out Jesus has need neither for water, for he is able to give the Living Water, nor does he need food, because when his disciples return he informs them of his true food, which is to do the Father’s will. So it’s not that God “needs” our offering, as the offeratory says, “of your own have we given you,” but it’s only by giving what we do have that what we have is able to be transformed.
In this passage we already have an obscure glimpse of the holy Trinity, The Father “sends” the Son, and as Jesus often says, he does nothing that he has not already “heard” from the Father. And it is Jesus who gives the “Living Water,” which is the Holy Spirit. It is never sufficient to think about God abstractly, it is our fundamental conviction as Christians that if we want to “know” who the Father is then we need to look at Jesus.
In response to this request the women points out her shock. As a Jewish male, and a teacher to boot, it is very surprising that he should even look at her, let alone ask something of her. As John reinforces, for “Jews do not share things in common with the Samaritans.” Prayer quickly should alert us to the reality that, like the Jews and Samaritans, God and us do not “share things in common.” Or put in more traditional terms, God is “completely other” or “holy.” God isn’t an object among other objects in the world only bigger and more powerful. We can’t see God, we can’t touch Him, we can’t manipulate or bargain with God, if we’re coming to prayer with that sort of mind we are missing the point and are domesticating God or worse, making God look a bit too much like what we already see and know. All too often we forget the holy mystery of God: encountering this God is a risk, it is a risk of transformation, that what we think we know about God or ourselves or other people might be more skewed than we realize, and offering ourselves up in prayer means that we need to be open to having our minds and our lives opened and set right. And so Jesus says “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
The gift of God that enables us to know him is the Living Water of the Holy Spirit. There’s a great quote by the now Pope Benedict: “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story; it is an event.” As I already mentioned, John’s Gospel is just great at communicating this. There is a difference between “knowing about God” and “knowing God.” What we’re after in prayer, and what happens as we come to encounter Jesus, is the kind of “knowledge” that is an experience of the Triune God. Jesus offers us, as he did to this Samaritan woman, not sheer “facts” about himself, information that we can acquire and move on from, but the overflowing life of the Spirit, the life that we experience in a unique way in the waters of Baptism. And this life is not going to dry up, it “gushes up to eternal life.” Sometimes we’re not going to “feel” this reality and our response might be that of skepticism, “sure, give me this water” she says, “’cause it sure is a pain in the butt to keep coming back to this well.” And these times of doubt, or anger or resentment are sure to come.
Many of the great spiritual parents of the Church repeatedly envision prayer and the life of prayer as a long and arduous process. Some even invoke the concept of “levels.” We do not have the ability to devote the kind of time to prayer that nuns and monks can. We will not all become spiritual masters or saints, but continuing in the life of prayer will often bring us times of trial that are not overcome without pain. When I was in cross country, I started as a junior. The first time I tried to run a 5K it was agonizing, and there was never a time through the next two years where it became “easy.” What happens next in our story is illustrative of this pain, but also of the accompanying joy in perseverance.
“Go, call your husband, and come back,” Jesus says. All of a sudden the mood changes and there’s a hint of silence in the air. There’s a C.S. Lewis quote, “God will accept us just the way we are, but he won’t leave us that way.” Or our Eucharistic liturgy warns us against coming to the Table only for solace and not being open to change. God is, after all, holy, and in prayer we experience this “totally other” God. In so doing, who we are becomes exposed. Here, Jesus shines a light on the life of this woman and he will likewise shine a light on our souls too. This can be painful, it can be uncomfortable, but in order to grow, this is a fundamental necessity, to be confronted with those things in our lives that we would rather avoid, not talk about or hide. Sometimes this might cause us to want to change the subject as the woman did here, “tell me about the Temple instead,” and while Jesus’s answer is profound, and would need books to unravel, his answer and her question ends up not even being important for the Samaritan woman. Because it is after passing through this struggle, seeing the things in us that must change, that Jesus is finally revealed to her, he is the Messiah, he is the “I Am,” and this God knows her.
This is the joy then that she finally experiences, she has encountered God, who knows her as she truly is, and in meeting him, she comes to see herself as he sees her, and it is liberating, so much so that she runs back into the town to tell them, not the answer to her “probing” and distracting question about the temples, but she says, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” As St. Paul says it, salvation will be like this, “coming to know even as we are fully known.” And we, we can invite others to share in this “being known” by God just like the Samaritans who said, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and we know that this is truly the saviour of the world.”