Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The Church gives us a three year cycle of readings for Sundays throughout the year, and though we are in Year C of that cycle, we are afforded the option of using the readings from Year A for the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent. This is because those Scripture passages are especially apt for the celebration of the Scrutinies (observed here at St. Pius during the 10:30 AM Sunday Mass). These are unique rites that the Church provides for those who are preparing to enter the Church at the Easter Vigil. From their original form in the early Church to their present-day structure, the Scrutinies are prayers, blessings, and exorcisms meant to help those preparing for Christian initiation to renounce sin, embrace the faith, and walk more closely with the Lord each day. The accompanying Gospels – about the Samaritan woman at the well, about the healing of a man born blind, and about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead – correspond to different elements of the journey of conversion, as well as different aspects of the salvific mission of Jesus Christ.
Today we hear the story of the Samaritan woman whom Jesus meets at the well. Many things immediately stand out in this story. First, Jesus, a Jew, speaks to a Samaritan. The Samaritans were a people deeply related ethnically to the people of Israel, though religious differences too complicated to write about in this space had separated them from their neighbors in Israel. The Gospel summary will have to suffice: “for Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans” (Jn. 4:9). For Jesus, a Jewish man, to speak to a Samaritan, much less ask for a drink of water from the same vessel, was extremely unusual. Add to this the fact that the Samaritan in question is a woman who is not his wife or a relative, and an important social norm also seems to be shattered. Finally, we should note that the Gospel tells us that it is midday when Jesus sits down. In that particular locale, water would be drawn from the well in the morning, when the temperature was cooler, but the Samaritan woman comes at noon to perform this task, a time when the well would be deserted.
Having taken note of these initial details that shape the story, we can examine more closely the important themes present in this passage. We see that Jesus’ mission extends universally, that is, it is for the Jewish people and non-Jewish peoples alike. We see that Jesus both understands our human traditions and norms, and gently points out our own failures to observe them. When Jesus names sin, he does so not with condemnation and hatred, but with a persuasive gentleness that enables the sinner to change their life. And finally, we will see that an encounter with Jesus draws us out of our isolation and into a new, personal relationship, and into a communion with our neighbors that gives life.
By speaking to the Samaritan woman and engaging her in religious conversation, Jesus reveals that the Messiah comes not only to save Israel, but to save the whole world from sin and death. We also see that Jesus has come to establish something new – a new and eternal covenant – to which all true believers will be subject in unity of faith. That is, Jesus is calling all peoples, Jew and Gentile, Samaritan, Greek, Roman, and whatever else one may be, to a new covenant with God. The door is open for all people to find salvation – God’s saving will is not tied to one race or nation to the exclusion of others. But the act of faith is necessary. Those preparing to receive the Sacraments of Initiation at Easter are now growing in their understanding of the faith. They have encountered Jesus in some way, and having engaged Him in conversation, having studied His teaching, are asking for the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit so that they can worship in spirit and truth, as Jesus says. Around the world and here in our own parish, people from all walks of life and backgrounds are in these weeks, preparing for initiation, so that they can be joined to the Catholic community everywhere in worshipping God in spirit and in truth.
Jesus invites the woman to go and call her husband to join them in conversation. In this moment, our Lord is both acknowledging the cultural norm present at the time, that a man would not speak to an unaccompanied woman to whom he was not married or related by blood, and demonstrating the integrity of his intention. In this moment, we are reminded of the freedom that God gives to humanity from the very beginning in the Garden of Eden. Human beings are free to say yes to God, to follow the commandments and promptings of the Lord, or not. God never forces us to choose Him, but always invites. Jesus reminds the woman of her freedom, and with the invitation to call her husband, subtly reminds her of her own misuse of freedom. She has had five husbands. The Gospel tells us little else about her, but the fact that she is at the well to draw water at a time when the well is deserted suggests that her reputation is badly tarnished. It is highly likely that her own sinful behavior has made her something of an outcast in her community. Even so, that is never the focus for Jesus. Rather, He names the sin, helps the woman own the fact of her sinfulness, and then invites her to the new covenant, the new faith to be established in Him. In the journey of conversion, it is necessary for us to recognize our sins and desire to repent of them. In fact, that is how Jesus begins His public ministry: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” The act of turning away from sin and toward the Spirit and Truth found in the Gospel enables us to hear the invitation of the Lord to the new covenant.
Finally, we see that the encounter with Jesus fills the Samaritan woman with such joy and confidence that she goes into the town and calls people to come and meet this prophetic man with whom she has been speaking. The woman is restored to the relationship with her community through her encounter with the Lord. Those preparing to enter the Church at Easter have encountered Jesus, and in the sacraments, will be drawn deeper into that relationship and enabled to worship in spirit and in truth, and to worship with a new community. Our faith is both an individual experience and an experience of community. Personal faith leads one into engagement with the community of believers and with those who have not yet come to faith. A community of believers returns again and again to the well, to the place where we encounter Jesus, and goes out again and again to call others to come and see.
As we continue our Lenten Journey, please pray for the men and women who will be received into our community of faith at Easter!